Visiting Artists

"ORAL HISTORY INITIATIVE: ON FRANK O’HARA," a conversation with poet and visual artist JOHN ASHBERY, MAUREEN O’HARA & RON PADGETT

Presented By Learning From Performers, Woodberry Poetry Room
Location: Askwith Lecture Hall

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Description of the Event

Recipient of the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal, poet John Ashbery ’49 returns to his alma mater to pay tribute to his Harvard College classmate and fellow poet, the late Frank O’Hara ’50, at “On Frank O’Hara,” part of the Oral History Initiative sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Ashbery will be joined by O’Hara’s sister, Maureen O’Hara, for this intimate and vibrant exchange of memories and anecdotes moderated by Ron Padgett, author of “How to Be Perfect” and “Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard.” Co-sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room and Learning From Performers.

John Ashbery began his artistic explorations with painting until shifting his focus to poetry at age fifteen. As an English concentrator at Harvard (1945-1949), Ashbery studied alongside students Robert Creeley, John Hawkes, and Frank O’Hara. With the help of Professor Kenneth Koch, the young poet joined the editorial board of “The Harvard Advocate. While at Harvard, Ashbery attended poetry readings by Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden, upon whose poetry he based his senior thesis. Early critical acclaim for his work came soon after leaving Harvard. In 1956, Auden selected Ashbery’s book “Some Trees,” which included several works originally published in the “Advocate,” as a winner of the Yale Younger Poets competition.

Increasing critical recognition in the 1970s transformed Ashbery from an obscure avant-garde experimentalist into one of America's most important (though at times controversial) poets, known for deft wit and diverse experimentation. In 1975 Ashbery won all three major American poetry prizes (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award) for his “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The collection's title poem is considered to be one of the masterpieces of late-20th-century American poetic literature.

Ashbery's art criticism has been collected in the 1989 volume “Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987,” edited by the poet David Bergman. He has written one novel, “A Nest of Ninnies,” with fellow poet James Schuyler, and in his 20s and 30s penned several plays, three of which have been collected in “Three Plays” (1978). Ashbery's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University were published as “Other Traditions” in 2000. A larger collection of his prose writings, “Selected Prose,” appeared in 2005, and “Collected Poems 1956–1987” was published by the Library of America series in 2008.

Ashbery has received awards from institutions including the Academy of American Poets, the Fulbright Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. Today he is among the most prolific writers of his generation, consistently publishing works in nearly every literary genre including “Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems” (2007).


Filed Under: Literary Arts