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David Kermani & John Ashbery

John Ashbery (born July 28, 1927), 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. He lives in two places-a rented apartment in Chelsea and an ornate Colonial-revival house in Hudson, New York-with his partner David Kermani. They met in 1970, when Ashbery was 42 and Kermani was 23.

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!)."


Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery
John Ashbery, a leading contemporary American poets, avoids explicit gay content in his poetry, but his work shares concerns with other late twentieth-century gay writing. He lives in two places-a rented apartment in Chelsea and an ornate Colonial-revival house in Hudson, New York-with his partner David Kermani. They met in 1970, when Ashbery was 42 and Kermani was 23. He adopts an attitude similar to camp. His ironic mocking of the culture he lives in betrays his passion for that culture.


L to R: Juno Gemes, Robert Adamson, John Ashbery, August Kleinzahler, at Mooney Creek, 1992. Photo: David K. Kermani

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.

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 www.glbtq.com/literature/ashbery_j.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date July 28, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

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Language: English
ISBN-10: 1500563323
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