from Mark Ford's obituary in The Guardian
Though in 1970 this must have struck many as far-fetched, by the end of the decade that saw the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days (1977), the “tribe of John”, as his followers were dubbed, seemed everywhere. “Since the death of Robert Lowell,” observed Helen McNeil in a Times Literary Supplement review of As We Know (1979), “the title of most important American poet has been on offer to John Ashbery.”In 1982, Ashbery suffered an almost fatal spinal infection that necessitated an 11-hour operation. His partner, and later husband, David Kermani, was informed that if Ashbery survived it, he would probably be quadriplegic. In fact, he made an almost complete recovery, and was soon busy again at his typewriter. In all, he published 28 collections of verse, and was the first living poet to have his work collected in the Library of America’s editions of classic American writers.
He was the recipient of numerous honours, awards and prizes, including two Guggenheim fellowships, a MacArthur fellowship, the chancellorship of the Academy of American Poets, the Robert Frost medal, the Feltrinelli prize, the International Griffin poetry prize, and a National Humanities medal, awarded by President Barack Obama in 2012. His work has been translated into dozens of languages. As well as poetry, he published a volume of art criticism (Reported Sightings, 1989), two volumes of literary criticism (Other Traditions, 2000, and Selected Prose, 2004), and numerous translations of French writers, collected in two volumes published in 2014.
From 1979 onwards, Ashbery divided his time between an apartment in Manhattan and an imposing 19th-century mansion in Hudson, New York state, that he purchased partly because it reminded him of the happy times he spent as a child in his grandparents’ house in Rochester. This housed paintings by such as Fairfield Porter and Joe Brainard, and collections of all sorts of Americana snapped up by the magpie-like poet. Gracious, witty, surprising, his conversation ranged from avant-garde composers to advertising jingles. He had an extraordinary memory for dates and events – and quotations, particularly from Ronald Firbank.
In 2014 I gave a reading with him in New York, at the 92nd St Y, and was touched almost to tears by the lines of people queuing to pay their respects to him afterwards. “John, your work has meant so much to me,” was the gist of what they had to say, though one or two went still further: “John, your poetry has changed my life.”
Click here for the entire obituary, which Mark wrote, on commission, a few years ago. -- DL