For John Ashbery’s Personal Library, A Spot On The Shelves At Harvard
When John Ashbery died in 2017, he left behind more than 30 collections of elliptical, often collagelike poetry, including “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” which won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize.
He also, like most writers, left behind another cache of books: an eclectic personal library of some 5,000 volumes, which will now be getting space on the shelves at Harvard University, his alma mater.
The university’s Houghton Library, which began acquiring the poet’s manuscripts and other papers in 1986, has announced the acquisition of the John Ashbery Reading Library, which includes more than 5,000 books of poetry, art criticism, architectural history, philosophy, religious history and cookbooks collected over the poet’s lifetime.
The collection, which was donated by Ashbery’s husband, David Kermani, convey the traces of the poet’s thought, and also of his hand. There are annotated editions of books by Boris Pasternak, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche and others, as well as the copy of the “Oxford Book of American Verse” he used as an undergraduate, with pressed flowers used as bookmarks.
Christina Davis, the curator who will oversee the collection, called the assemblage of books “one of his consummate works of art.”
“During his lifetime,” she said, “it was also a vital artery in his writing life and served as a kind of early and intimate internet, from which he drew ideas and felicitous bits of data on a regular basis.”
Writers’ libraries are a specialized (and space-consuming) area of collecting. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, a leader in the field, owns the libraries, or parts of the libraries, of W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, E.E. Cummings, Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace (whose heavily scribbled-in books leaned heavily to self-help). Harvard’s holdings include book collections from Emily Dickinson, William James, John Updike, Gore Vidal and others.
Harvard has a long history of collecting Ashbery, who graduated from the college in 1949. Its Woodberry Poetry Room is responsible for making the earliest extant recording of an Ashbery work: a 1951 performance of his play “Everyman.”
Harvard began acquiring Ashbery’s papers in 1986, when it paid $200,000 for the first portion of them (at the time, the highest price it had ever paid for a manuscript collection, a curator told The Harvard Crimson in 1987). The final portion of the papers, delivered in December, brings the total holdings to 250 linear feet of manuscripts, letters, memorabilia and other material.
Those papers are open to scholars, but at least one of Ashbery’s belongings will be of more concrete use. Mr. Kermani has also donated one of the poet’s desks, which will be permanently installed in one of the university’s resident undergraduate colleges, where students will be “encouraged to create their own works,” according to a news release.