Ashbery awarded National Humanities Medal

Hudson Poet discovers president is an admirer of his work

HUDSON–John Ashbery, distinguished poet and translator, recipient of numerous awards for his work, made his third excursion to the White House last month, this time to be awarded a National Humanities Medal.

President Barack Obama made the awards in the East Room of the White House, draping the medal on its ribbon over each recipient. Before awarding Mr. Ashbery his medal, the president whispered something to him.

“He said, ‘I’m a fan of yours from way back,’” reported Mr. Ashbery, “and I believed him.” The president is known as an avid reader.

“He also said, ‘I bet this is the only award you haven’t got yet.’ I couldn’t think of anything to say, he was so charming, just the way he appears on TV, and you never think this person is going to be talking to you.”

Mr. Ashbery, 84, did reply to the president that the Humanities Medal was worth waiting for. First Lady Michelle Obama was also in the East Room for the ceremony. “She shook hands with me and said nice things,” said Mr. Ashbery. “The whole thing was very enjoyable and the food was wonderful.”

National Arts Medals were also awarded that day, and Mr. Ashbery introduced himself to Al Pacino, an arts recipient.

The award festivities had begun the previous evening, with a “big banquet in the National Museum of the American Indian,” reported Mr. Ashbery. There he re-met the actor John Lithgow, the banquet’s keynote speaker. Mr. Lithgow has now been involved in giving Mr. Ashbery three awards, including the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal and 2011 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. Both men were born in Rochester (18 years apart) and graduated from Harvard College.

Mr. Ashbery, a part-time resident of Hudson since 1978, was first invited to the White House in January 1980, when President and Mrs. Carter hosted an event presented by Poetry magazine. Mr. Ashbery next visited the White House in April 1998, when Bill and Hillary Clinton hosted an “American Voice in Poetry” event. But this last visit was the only time he had received a medal there, Mr. Ashbery noted, so it was “more momentous.”

Mr. Ashbery has published more than 20 collections of poetry, the most recent of which is the 2009 “Planisphere.” Last year he published a translation from the French of “Illuminations” by Arthur Rimbaud.

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, is described as honoring individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened citizens’ engagement with the humanities or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.

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