|Born and raised on a fruit farm in upstate New York, John Ashbery might not have become a poet if he had not won an anthology of poems in a grade-school contest. By his senior year at Deerfield Academy, the farmer's son conceived of himself as a writer and artist, and aspired to improve himself at Harvard, where he went to college. One of his classmates, the poet Kenneth Koch, became a close and lifelong friend, and the two of them attracted a noteworthy gathering of acquaintances and friends, including Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and others who eventually came to be known as the New York School poets. After writing a thesis on W. H. Auden, Ashbery graduated from Harvard in 1949 and attended Columbia for a master's degree. He then won a Fulbright to Paris where, in addition to developing a short-lived addiction to Coca-Cola, he worked on a never-finished book on the French writer Raymond Roussel, wrote poems, and took up art criticism, which would become, far a time, his primary occupation. He sent his first manuscript of poems, SOME TREES, to Yale University Press to be considered for their Yale Younger Poets Prize, and it was rejected in an early round of the selections. But Ashbery's thesis subject, W. H. Auden, was that year's final judge and was so disappointed with the poems Yale sent him that he asked for their rejects, and he chose Ashbery's manuscript from the slush pile. SOME TREES received only minor critical attention, so Ashbery tried something new and produced what is generally considered to be his most incomprehensible work, THE TENNIS COURT OATH. In spite of the work's difficulty, Ashbery's star began to rise, more and more quickly, and his quirky second book now looks less like a misstep than one of a series of feints in unconventional directions. After THE TENNIS COURT OATH, Ashbery made his living as an art critic, writing for the New York Herald Tribune while he was in Paris, then coming back to America to edit Art News and to write for Newsweek. His attitude toward reviewing was always somewhat ambivalent, as was his attitude to his other vocation, teaching, which he did mostly at Brooklyn College and Bard College in New York. The ambivalence Ashbery projected was long returned to him in spades by critics, who alternately adored and loathed his work, doing their best to shoehorn it into a recognizable tradition, only to be undone by Ashbery's next production. Nevertheless, he came by century's end to seem one of the great American poets, and he won many awards, including the Bollingen, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur grant.