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COLLECTION Identifier: MS Am 3189

John Ashbery papers


Personal and professional papers of American poet and art critic, John Ashbery.


  • Creation: circa 1914-2018


Language of Materials

English, with a small amount of French.

Conditions Governing Access

Restricted: fragile; consult curatorial staff (boxes 62, 77, 223, and 224).

There are no restrictions on physical access to the rest of the collection. Collection is open for research.

A portion of this collection is shelved offsite. Retrieval requires advance notice. Check with Houghton Public Services staff.


250 linear feet (225 boxes)
14 Terabytes (89 items)

The collection comprises personal and professional papers of John Ashbery, including: correspondence; poetry and prose compositions in various stages; compositions by others; teaching papers; papers concerning Raymond Roussel and Pierre Martory; autobiographical material and biographical material by others; office papers, most arranged by day or year; production files for published works by Ashbery; papers relating to the Flow Chart Foundation and the Ashbery Resource Center; and household papers accompanied by dessert plates.

Most email and e-faxes have been printed out rather than provided in born-digital form.

Includes CDs, DVDs, floppy disks, zip disks, a USB flash drive, 3 internal hard drives, and 1 external hard drive.

Biographical / Historical

John Lawrence Ashbery (28 July 1927 – 3 September 2017), was an American poet, art critic, and occasional film critic. He was born in Rochester, New York, and raised on a farm near Lake Ontario. Ashbery was educated at Deerfield Academy where he began writing poetry. His first ambition was to be a painter: from age 11 to 15, he took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester.

Ashbery earned degrees from Harvard (1949) and Columbia. At Harvard, he began life-long friendships with fellow poets Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and Robert Creeley. He went to France as a Fulbright Scholar in 1955, living there for much of the next decade. He lived during this time with the French poet Pierre Martory whose books Ashbery translated. He also translated works of Arthur Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, and many titles by Raymond Roussel. Ashbery worked with dozens of composers over the years including Elliott Carter, Ned Rorem, and Eric Salzman.

He was the issue editor of a double issue (numbers 3-4) of Locus Solus (1961-1962), served as executive editor of Art News (1966-1972), as art critic for New York magazine and Newsweek, and occasionally as a film critic. His collages are represented by Tibor de Nagy Gallery (New York). He taught for many years at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and Bard College, and in 1989-1990 delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard (2000). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (receiving its Gold Medal for Poetry in 1997) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1988 to 1999.

The winner of many national and international prizes, appointments, and awards, he received two Guggenheim Fellowships and was a MacArthur Fellow from 1985 to 1990. He was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2011), the National Humanities Medal presented by President Obama at the White House (2012), and the Bollingen Prize. Harvard, among a number of institutions, awarded Ashbery an honorary degree (2001); it also awarded him the Harvard Arts Medal (2009) and the Signet Society’s Medal for Achievement in the Arts. The Harvard Film Archive honored him in a 2009 series, “John Ashbery at the Movies”.

An early book by Ashbery, Some Trees (1956), was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won three major American prizes: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Ashbery’s many collections of poetry include Commotion of the Birds (2016), Breezeway (2015), Quick Question (2012), Planisphere (2009) and Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (2007), which was awarded the 2008 International Griffin Poetry Prize. The Library of America published the first volume of his collected poems in 2008 and the second in 2017. A two-volume set of his collected translations from the French (poetry and prose) was published in 2014. His own work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

Ashbery lived in New York City and Hudson, New York, with his husband, David Kermani. He died of natural causes on September 3, 2017, at his home in Hudson.

Sources consulted:
  1. Kermani, David. “Ashbery bio”, June 6, 2020. Email.
  2. Morris, Leslie A. “In Memoriam: John Ashbery”. Houghton Library Blog. Accessed June 10, 2020.
  3. Wikipedia contributors. John Ashbery [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2020 Apr 25 [cited 2020 Jun 10]. Available from:
  4. Additional information is available in the “About John Ashbery” section of the website for the Ashbery Resource Center (a project of The Flow Chart) website (


The collection is arranged in chronological series by accession number (an accession number is the number assigned to an individual group of papers acquired by the library at a certain time). Within three of the four accessions, the papers are physically in original order as received from the creator. The fourth accession, 89M-58, is in a physical order imposed by the library, as well as some in original order.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Special equipment or surrogate required (born-digital media); consult Houghton staff.

Physical Location

Harvard Depository, b

Immediate Source of Acquisition

2019M-4. Purchased with funds from the Amy Lowell Trust and the Bayard Livingston and Kate Gray Kilgour Fund, 2018-2019.

2014M-31. Purchased from John Ashbery, 2014.

97M-43. Purchased with the Amy Lowell fund, 1997 and 2002.

89M-58. Purchased from John Ashbery, 1986-1989.

2021M-45. Gift of Susan Rosenbaum, 2021 June 23.

2021M-33. Purchased from James S. Jaffe Rare Books with the Frank Brewer Bemis Bequest, 2021 February 5.

Separated Materials

Digital equipment and media have been separated for processing (Am3189BD).

Books belonging to John Ashbery have been removed for separate cataloging.

General note

Abbreviations used within these papers:

  1. ARC: Ashbery Resource Center in Hudson, NY. "A physical and virtual space for discovery and research." A project of the Flow Chart Foundation.
  2. DK: David Kermani, John Ashbery's husband
  3. ES: Emily Skillings, John Ashbery's assistant and organizer
  4. FCF: Flow Chart Foundation in Hudson, NY. "...explores the interrelationships of various art forms—with a focus on the language of inquiry known as poetry—as guided by the legacy of American poet John Ashbery and promotes engagement with his work."
  5. JA: John Ashbery

Processing Information

Processed by Melanie Wisner, 2020.

Processing Information

Ashbery's husband and associate created a "Master Filing System for John Ashbery", last updated in 2018. The numbers assigned to files have been recorded in a note; in some cases the physical order of folders within boxes corresponds to file system numbers. Folders are in many cases labeled with their assigned filing system numbers.

Ashbery, John, 1914-2017. John Ashbery papers, circa 1927-2018 (MS Am 3189): Guide.
Houghton Library, Harvard University.
2020 March 19
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Houghton Library Repository

Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, archives, and more. Houghton Library's collections represent the scope of human experience from ancient Egypt to twenty-first century Cambridge. With strengths primarily in North American and European history, literature, and culture, collections range in media from printed books and handwritten manuscripts to maps, drawings and paintings, prints, posters, photographs, film and audio recordings, and digital media, as well as costumes, theater props, and a wide range of other objects. Houghton Library has historically focused on collecting the written record of European and Eurocentric North American culture, yet it holds a large and diverse number of primary sources valuable for research on the languages, culture and history of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Houghton Library’s Reading Room is free and open to all who wish to use the library’s collections.

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