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John Ashbery obituary

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One of the most influential American poets of his generation admired for his unorthodox use of language

John Ashbery, who has died aged 90, was widely considered the most innovative and influential American poet of his generation. The critic Harold Bloom, who played an important role in establishing Ashbery’s reputation in the mid-1970s, declared: “No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.” Yet Ashbery’s work also frequently aroused controversy; his early volume The Tennis Court Oath (1962) was dismissed by one critic as “garbage”; and even after his 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer prize for poetry, the National Book Critics Circle award and the National Book award, catapulting him to stardom, he was not without doubters and detractors.

Ashbery’s highly distinctive style has been widely imitated, and his elusive but compelling poems explored in numerous critical books, academic articles and PhD theses (of which I wrote one myself). From his very earliest experiments, such as Some Trees and The Painter, both written when he was only 21, to his prolific later years, Ashbery’s work presents a restless, supremely sophisticated imagination meditating self-reflexively on experience, creating in the process a “flow chart”, to borrow the title of his longest work, of the vagaries of memory and the fluctuations of consciousness.

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