"Wakefulness": Remembering Poet John Ashbery

Celebrating the genius of the late American poet (1927-2017).

remembering john ashbery

Early Sunday morning, the great American poet, John Ashbery, passed away at the age of 90. Ashbery was a powerful—and famously obscure—voice in the literary world, and "changed the rules of American poetry." Among his 20 collections is the multi-award winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.

Like his poetry, Ashbery was brilliant and enigmatic—a man who cherished experiences and the magic of everyday moments rather than following convention.

Join us in celebrating his extraordinary life and inimitable style with the titular poem, "Wakefulness," below.





By John Ashbery

An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,

recollections of the Fall—tell me,

has anyone made a spongier representation, chased

fewer demons out of the parking lot

where we all held hands?

Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.

I was touched by your care,

reduced to fawning excuses.

Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,

the clock ticked on and on, happy about

being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes

came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though

it had happened long ago

in ancient peach-colored funny papers

wherein the law of true opposites was ordained

casually. Then the book opened by itself

and read to us: “You pack of liars,

of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each

and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.

Look, here is where I failed at first.

The client leaves. History goes on and on,

rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn

condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,

shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”

In the next sleeping car was madness.

An urgent languor installed itself

as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little

bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’

truant exchanges, brandished my intentions

for once? But only I get

something out of this memory.

A kindly gnome

of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed

to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it

seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it,

life stays frozen in the headlights.

Funny, none of us heard the roar.

Read more of John Ashbery's famous works.

Hotel Lautréamont

Hotel Lautréamont

By John Ashbery

“Ashbery’s phrases always feel newly minted; his poems emphasize verbal surprise and delight, not the ways that linguistic patterns restrict us. This sense of freedom is produced by Ashbery’s diction (no American poet has had a larger, more diverse vocabulary, not Whitman, not Pound) as well as his formal choices...Yet his work is permeated by a sense of urgency. He writes to outpace his last thought, refusing to rest in it, proceeding at a rate that is not hurried but dogged, in it for the long haul.” —Langdon Hammer, The New York Times Book Review

Three Poems

Three Poems

By John Ashbery

“Ashbery’s finely tuned style never lapses into the commonplace. Every poem creates a mood of density and discretion, which is almost magical. . . . The language is everywhere magnificent.” —Dennis Zweig, The New York Times Book Review

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Featured Photo of John Ashbery: Alchetron