20-Nov, 16:45

11:48, September 12 126 0

2017-09-12 11:48:04
John Ashbery, Poet, in All His Hunky Glory

When John Ashbery died last week at 90, many of his obituaries included photographs of a stout, distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman.

Before becoming known as perhaps the premier American poet of the last half-century, however, Mr. Ashbery embodied the poet-as-pin-up, with his chiseled lips, undone shirts and lush mustache.

“He was something of a looker, wasn’t he?” said Susan M. Schultz, a professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and the editor of “The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry” (1995).

A photograph by Gerard Malanga, a longtime assistant and collaborator of Andy Warhol, shows the poet on a New York City sidewalk, with his sleeves rolled up, hands jammed in his pockets and the wind apparently playing with his thick locks.

Mr. Ashbery struck a similarly studly pose for Gustavo Hoffman on the cover of “Three Poems” (Viking, 1972), leaning against a railing at the painter Robert Dash’s place in Sagaponack, N.Y., with barns in the background.

Ashbery-as-dorm-poster culminated with the cover shot by the artist Darragh Park for the Penguin paperback edition of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975). The poet stands in all his hunky glory, hips slightly cocked, windowpane shirt open to midchest. The tight slacks have no belt loops.

Provocative author photos are nothing new. Truman Capote’s first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948), created a stir as much for its suggestive Harold Halma dust jacket portrait of the young writer reclining on a chaise longue as for its contents. Mr. Ashbery took this approach to another level.

“I’m laughing, because I’m thinking of those covers, especially ‘Self-Portrait,’” Ms. Schultz said. “I remember thinking how cheesy it looked. It reminded me of a cheap romance novel, like the kind you’d see near the checkout counter of a drugstore.”

It wasn’t always thus. A preppy product of Deerfield and Harvard, Mr. Ashbery was buttoned down for years.

“Ashbery, when I first knew him in 1967, would wear a tie and a jacket and he always looked very natty,” said David Lehman, the general editor of the “Best American Poetry” series. “He liked J. Press.

“But in the ’70s, with the loosening up of styles and the newly emergent gay movement, that changed,” Mr. Lehman said. Ashbery’s look in that glamorous “Self-Portrait” photo, Mr. Lehman said, “was after Stonewall. Gay men were out, without defensiveness and fear. In a way, he became more visibly and publicly who he was.”

The poet and collage artist Ian Ganassi, a student of Mr. Ashbery’s at Brooklyn College, also found himself drawn to photos of the man.

“I was very naïve and didn’t realize that he was gay until later on,” Mr. Ganassi said. “I remember seeing those photos of him, and it was a very ’70s look. But there was something more to it.

“He was a very beautiful man,” Mr. Ganassi said, “and I identify as heterosexual.”

Ms. Schultz said she found it curious that a poet whose output was often elusive and anything but confessional would project himself so boldly.

“I’m struck by the tension between the work, which is so diffuse and uncentered, and the cover photographs, which are so centered,” Ms. Schultz said.

For Mr. Ganassi, Mr. Ashbery’s physical forte was neither chest hair nor ’stache. It was the penetrating gaze, which registered strongly several times on the cover of the American Poetry Review.

“His eyes just reinforced the feeling that there was something supernatural about his abilities,” Mr. Ganassi said. “There was an aura about him.”