Colleagues recall leading poetic voice, John Ashbery, 90
HUDSON—John Ashbery, the author of 28 individual collections of poetry and the recipient of numerous awards for his work, died Sunday, September 3 at his home in Hudson, just weeks past his 90th birthday (July 28).
Mr. Ashbery’s survivors include his husband, David Kermani, and a raft of friends and colleagues who on Tuesday remembered him fondly and joyously.
The couple bought their home in Hudson in 1978 and lived there part-time, spending more time in Hudson after Mr. Ashbery began to teach at Bard College in 1990. He retired from Bard in 2008 with the title of Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature.
“One of the greatest pleasures in my life was to find myself a close colleague of John’s at Bard,” said Joan Retallack, herself a distinguished poet and scholar and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities at Bard. “I visited with him a little over a month before he died; he was bedridden then and had some trouble breathing, and at the same time, he was absolutely delightful. He just took more breaths!
“He still had the enormous breadth of his ideas, along with his humorous ripostes and bantering,” said Ms. Retallack, who lives in Barrytown. “He was someone who was exactly who he found it pleasurable to be, right up to his death. It was joyful being with him, and it’s hard at this point to settle into the fact that there’s no way to encounter him again in his full presence.”
Ms. Retallack urged a caller to read Mr. Ashbery’s poetry. “I derive energy and courage from his poetry every time I read it,” she said. “I find new things in poems I’ve been reading for 30-plus years—new humor, new observations.”
Ms. Retallack and others noted that Mr. Ashbery continued to write new poems until his death. “Commotion of the Birds: New Poems” was published in November 2016.
“One comfort is that he was at the top of his game until the end,” said Jeffrey Lependorf, a composer, musician, arts administrator and the driving force behind the annual Read & Feed at Basilica Hudson. The “read” part of this summer’s July 23 festival celebrated Mr. Ashbery. The poet did not attend or participate directly in the planning, but “through David I learned that John was moved that we focused on him for the festival,” said Mr. Lependorf, who lives part-time in Hudson, near the Ashbery-Kermani home.
Featured at the festival were a 20-person marathon reading of Mr. Ashbery’s poetry collection “Girls on the Run” and a panel discussion, “How to Love Reading Ashbery,” which Ms. Retallack was part of.
“There’s a myth about John’s poetry being difficult to read,” said Mr. Lependorf. “This is the result of an expectation, an unfair one, about what poems are supposed to do. If you simply read John’s poetry, most of it is fun and thrilling.
“Any difficulty is a positive force,” Mr. Lependorf continued. “John references many things in his poetry, but you don’t feel deficient— rather that he’s introducing you to something wonderful.
“I have quite a few friends that studied with John,” Mr. Lependorf added, “and they say that what made him a great teacher was that he never pointed out what was negative in a poem, only the positive. He had a sense of delight throughout his life that was reflected in his poetry.”
Emily Skillings, a poet who became Mr. Ashbery’s assistant when she graduated from college in 2010, agreed. “He cared so much for young writers, supporting them in their work,” she said. He helped her edited her first full-length poetry collection, “Fort Not,” which will be published in the fall. The book is dedicated to Mr. Ashbery and Mr. Kermani.
“I saw John the Tuesday before he died, and he was sharp as a tack, always making connections and eager to correspond with friends,” said Ms. Skillings, who lives part-time in Hudson. Mr. Ashbery would dictate letters or email, and she would type and send them. “It was one of my favorite parts of the job.
“Being around John was like osmosis—you got information from being near him,” said Ms. Skillings. “It wasn’t a teaching situation, but something atmospheric. I loved his poetry before I started working for him, the way he connected seemingly disparate things in a poem. He did that in conversation too.”
The Columbia Paper last talked to Mr. Ashbery in March 2012, when he made his third excursion to the White House, that time to be awarded a National Humanities Medal.
President Barack Obama made the awards. Before draping the ribbon over Mr. Ashbery, the president whispered something to him.
“He said, ‘I’m a fan of yours from way back,’” reported Mr. Ashbery, “and I believed him.”
Of the award festivities, Mr. Ashbery said, “The whole thing was very enjoyable and the food was wonderful.”
Mr. Ashbery was first invited to the White House in January 1980, when President and Mrs. Carter hosted an event presented by Poetry magazine. His next visit came in April 1998, when Bill and Hillary Clinton hosted an “American Voice in Poetry” event.
But the third visit was the only time he had received a medal there, Mr. Ashbery noted at the time, so it was “more momentous.”
Mr. Ashbery introduced himself to Al Pacino, a National Arts Medal recipient, and caught up with the actor John Lithgow, a keynote speaker at the banquet. Both men were born in Rochester (18 years apart) and graduated from Harvard College.
“I met John years ago at a dinner party,” said Ellen Thurston, a Hudson neighbor. “Aside from being a great poet, he was a great dinner companion. And living around the corner from them, whether they were home or not, I felt John’s presence. That was a wonderful thing.”