Born in Rochester, New York and raised on a farm near Lake Ontario, Ashbery’s first ambition was to be a painter. Sadly, instead of painting, Ashbery became a poet and has since won nearly every major American award for his poetry, beginning with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, selected by W. H. Auden, for his first collection, Some Trees. At high school he read the likes of Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Wallace Stevens. His early work shows the influence of these poets, as well as French Surrealists (he has extensively translated French literature). In the late 1950s, Ashbery became one of New York’s avant-garde darlings along with Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie and others. However, Ashbery soon wearied of the big apple and moved to Paris, at which point he began to transform from an obscure experimentalist into one of America’s most important (though also most controversial) poets.
Ashbery’s writing is famously difficult to read due to its disjunctive syntax, and extensive linguistic play. However, it’s also playful and rewarding, often infused with humour, and sometimes a flat or parodic tone. He was the poet laureate of New York state from 2001 to 2003.