John Ashbery, one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century, dies

John Ashbery, long considered one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century, died early Sunday at his home in Hudson, N.Y. He was 90.

Ashbery’s husband, David Kermani, said Ashbery’s death was from natural causes.

Well-known for his wordplay, humor, modernist shifts between high oratory and everyday chatter and his dazzling runs of allusions and sense impressions, Ashbery was the first living poet to have a volume published by the Library of America dedicated exclusively to his work. He won nearly every major American poetry award, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize and, in 1985, a MacArthur Fellows “Genius” Grant.

At the time of the MacArthur award, Ashbery was 58.

Born on a farm near Rochester, N.Y., in 1927, Ashbery earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, where he was selected as “Class Poet,” according to the University of Rochester.

Ashbery earned a master's degree from Columbia University in 1951, and in 1956, the poet W. H. Auden selected Ashbery’s book of poems Some Trees for inclusion in the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Auden later confessed that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript, the Poetry Foundation noted.

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Ashbery traveled to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship and earned a living writing art criticism. He also became friends with painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, among others. It showed in his poetry, observers noted: Writer Helen McNeil said modern art was “the first and most powerful influence” on Ashbery. “When he began to write in the 1950s, American poetry was constrained and formal while American abstract-expressionist art was vigorously taking over the heroic responsibilities of the European avant garde.”

Ashbery’s 1975 collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, was the rare winner of the book world's unofficial triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize.

In 2002, the French government made Ashbery an officer of the Légion d'Honneur, a year after New York State named him poet laureate.

In 2012, President Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal.

Ashbery had taught at Bard College since 1990, The New York Times reported.

In 2015, Ashbery told The Times that the poets who inspired him included Auden, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louis MacNeice, Marianne Moore and Dylan Thomas. He added, “the list goes on, but I don’t often read them. Once something has inspired you, that’s it. Somebody — maybe me — once described the situation as like standing on the deck of a ship that’s pulling away from shore, smiling and waving at friends who are waving back at you. They still love you and vice versa, but they can’t come along.”

Asked what book most influenced him, Ashbery said it was the French novelist Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, “for better or worse. You finish it feeling sadder and wiser, so if you’re O.K. with the sadder part, you should take it on.”

Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo

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