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Ashbery, John (b. 1929)  

John Ashbery, one of the leading contemporary American poets, avoids explicit gay content in his poetry, but his work shares concerns with other late twentieth-century gay writing.

Ashbery was born in 1929 near Rochester, New York. He is author of more than fifteen books of poems, beginning with Turandot and Other Poems in 1953, and is considered one of the leading contemporary American poets. His works range in length from two-line poems and haiku to the book-length Flow Chart.

Ashbery is a disconcerting poet to read. He produces poems that look like poems, yet do not live up to our expectations of poems and how they create meaning. His poems follow the action of his mind and so always are in danger of being solipsistic, yet they are also clearly engaged in a discourse with the reader.

Ashbery is often referred to as a philosophical poet. He is clearly concerned with the nature of language and its connection to thought. He is also concerned more specifically with the nature of poetry and its boundaries in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as with the relationship between poet and reader.

Although Ashbery's poems often have the feel of autobiography, he does not include his own life in his poetry in a recognizable way. His claim to being a gay poet depends more on his friendship with Frank O'Hara and his inclusion in O'Hara's poems than it does on anything in his own writing. For example, Ashbery appears as a character in O'Hara's "At the Old Place," under the names "Ashes," "J.A.," and "John." In a memorable section of this poem celebrating a seedy gay bar, O'Hara dances with Ashbery: "Wrapped in Ashes' arms I glide. / (It's heaven!)."

The critic and poet Richard Howard makes a distinction between "homosexual writers" and "writers who are homosexual." Although most Ashbery criticism places him in the latter category, ignoring questions of sexual preference either in his life or the poems, there have been a few attempts to read Ashbery as a gay poet.

One approach is to try to assign a specific biographical meaning to Ashbery's fluid self(?)-descriptions. Helen Vendler has identified a passage in Flow Chart as referring to Ashbery's adolescent difficulties with being gay, but this reading, like all readings of Ashbery, can be only probably, not certainly, true.

Another approach is to use psychoanalytic tools to discover the meaning beneath the surface of the text. For example, David Bergman, in a Freudian reading of Ashbery, has seen "egolessness" as a sign of homosexual writing in general, and of Ashbery's in particular.

Since Ashbery intends to frustrate all labeling projects, in making our estimate of him as a gay poet we come up against our own understanding of what we expect from a gay poet. Despite the lack of explicit gay content, for example, his work shares concerns with other late twentieth-century gay writing. Ashbery probes the nature of identity, how a person constructs his own identity and that of others, and the degree to which that identity depends on the culture around us. He also adopts an attitude similar to camp. His ironic mocking of the culture he lives in betrays his passion for that culture.

Terrence Johnson


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John Ashbery in 2007. Photograph by David Shankbone.
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Richard Howard's searching and witty poetry, in which homosexuality is not a problem but a solution, is a significant contribution to the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

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Berger, Charles. "The Vision in the Form of a Task." Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. David Lehman, ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. 163-208.

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Howard, Richard. Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950. New York: Atheneum, 1980.

Vendler, Helen. "A Steely Glitter Chasing Shadows." The New Yorker (August 3, 1992): 73-76.


    Citation Information
    Author: Johnson, Terrence  
    Entry Title: Ashbery, John  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 13, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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