John Ashbery (1927 -2017)

John Lawrence Ashbery (July 28, 1927 – September 3, 2017) Photo courtesy of Sodus Community Library collection


Did you know that John Ashbery from Sodus won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and throughout his career many of the most prestigious American literary awards? The only major award that eluded him was the Nobel Prize for literature.

The following information is from Wikipedia, the John Ashbery collection at the Sodus Community Library and the magazine Current Biography August 1976 Vol. 37 Number 8 Pages 3 – 6 .

John was born on July 28, 1927 in Sodus. He was the first of two sons of Helen (Lawrence) Ashbery who had been a biology teacher before her marriage and Chester Frederick Ashbery, a fruit farmer in Sodus.

John grew up in Sodus on the Ashbery farm located on 7273 Maple Avenue just south of where Burnap’s Farm Market is now located.

The Ashbery Farm. Photos courtesy Edith Farrington (2019)


He attended Sodus Schools and was recognized as being unusually bright. He was a lonely isolated misfit – his only sibling brother died when he was 13. He also attended elementary school in Rochester where his grandfather (Henry Lawrence) lived and was the chairman of the University of Rochester department of physics. His grandfather was a cultured man and intellectual. Splitting his time between Rochester in the winter and spending summers in Sodus picking cherries (until he was 20) was a traumatic experience for him.

Mrs. Lydon Wells, a neighbor, furthered his education by paying his tuition to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts for his last 2 years of high school. Later John went to Harvard for his B.A. and in his freshman year was named the class poet and then attended Columbia University for his MA.

John’s interests in the arts were widespread. Although he started writing poetry st age 8, he also dabbled in painting and at age 18 concentrated on music. He also would write one novel, “A Nest of Ninnies”. In the early 1950s, John was writing poetry but was not having a great deal of success. He admitted that he was going through a period of intense depression and doubt. However, in 1952, things began to change. That year he shared the YMHA Discovery Prize with two other young poets and in 1953 had his first volume of poetry published. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, John’s career took off. in the 1960s, John published 2 major volumes of poetry: The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and Rivers and Mountains (1966). Both works were highly acclaimed. The decade 1966 -1976 saw a steady rise in John’s reputation and awards culminating with him receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1976. In addition to his 1976 honors, Ashbery has won many awards over the years: the Poet’s Foundation grant in 1960 and 1964; the Ingram Merrill Foundation grant in 1962 and 1972; Poetry magazine’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Award in 1963, and its Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize in 1966; two Guggenheim fellowships in 1967 and 1973; a National Institute of Arts and Letters award in 1969; and a Shelley Award in 1973 from the Poetry Society of America.

During the 1970s, Ashbery came back to Sodus on at least 2 occasions.  On May 30, 1971 he read selected poems at the Sodus Free Library:


On October 10, 1976 Sodus Central School held a reception honoring him for winning the Pulitzer price and gave him a special award:

John Ashbery’s poetry was described as brillant and elegant by literary critics but could be confounding to the casual reader as illustrated in poems such as “Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror”:

In the early 1970s, Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College, where his students included poet John Yau. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences  in 1983. In the 1980s, he moved to Bard College, where he was the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature, until 2008, when he retired but continued to win awards, present readings, and work with graduate and undergraduates at many other institutions. He was the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003, and also served for many years as a chancellor of the  Academy of American Poets. He served on the contributing editorial board of the literary journal Conjuctions. In 2008 Ashbery was named the first poet laureate of  MtyU, a division of  MTV broadcast to U.S. college campuses, with excerpts from his poems featured in 18 promotional spots and the works in their entirety on the broadcaster’s website.  

Ashbery was a Millet Writing Fellow at Wesleyvan University in 2010, and participated in Wesleyan’s Distinguished Writers Series.  He was a founding member of The Raymond Rousssel Society , with Miquel Barcelo, Joan Bofill-Amargós, Michel Butor, Thor Halvorssen and Hermes Salceda.

Ashbery lived in New York City and Hudson New York, with his husband, David Kermani. He died of natural causes on September 3, 2017, at his home in Hudson, at the age of 90.


John Ashbery also had a Pultneyville connection as explained by Kimberly Woods Garlock: 

Some more fun facts about him, he is a descendant of Samuel Throop, one of the first settlers in Pultneyville. Samuel was father to both Washington and Horatio who were both involved in the lake trade business. Captain Horatio was one of the sea captains who assisted thousands of runaway slaves to escape to Canada. I live in the Washington Throop house, which was passed down through generations to John Ashbery’s mother Helen. It was a summer home for the family. The home remained with one family from when it was built in 1828 until 1987. This biography is an awesome read, both in terms of learning about this man as well as the history of the area.”


To read more about John Ashbery’s extraordinary life:

WikiPedia entry for John Ashbery:

His biography in the magazine Current Biography August 1976 Vol. 37 Number 8 Pages 3 – 6 . Click the link below and use the + and – buttons to zoom in and out:

John Ashbery Biography


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