John Ashbery and Walter Becker, who both died on Sunday, expanded the boundaries of their art and gained popular success by breaking the rules.
Ashbery, 90, was acclaimed as the country's greatest poet of the last 60 years, receiving a front page obituary in The New York Times. Becker, 67, co-founder of the band Steely Dan, drew praise as one of the most innovative musicians of the rock era.
They shared a connection to Bard College, Ashbery as a longtime teacher there and Becker as a student. Becker met Daniel Fagen at the progressive school in suburban New York, a friendship that led to Steely Dan, known for its imaginative, jazz-influenced recordings. After achieving success with their studio project, Becker and Fagen reached new levels of stardom with concert tours.
Becker and Ashbery stirred division in their respective disciplines. The work of both was found captivating by their most intense fans and boring by vehement detractors.
While poet and former New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon claimed Ashbery united the poetry world with universal acceptance of his work, his poems sparked passionate admiration and strong denunciation. Poet and memoirist Mary Karr in a New York Times interview blasted him as a charlatan, as noted in 2015 by Southern Bookman.
Steely Dan, which had one top 40 hit with "Reeling in the Years," was loved by its cultish fans, and despised by others as pretentious and self-absorbed. While avoiding some of the excesses of "prog rock," Steely Dan had similar impulses.
Ashbery's work, admitted by Muldoon to be incoherent, seemed to arbitrarily string together words and images without concern for meaning. Less artistically gifted imitators tried to do the same thing by throwing together disparate elements. Critics said that a computer could be programmed to produce similar work.
Also known as an art critic and translator, Ashbery said he sought to give his language the same aesthetic quality as music, reaching for deeper meanings beyond the common conceptions of speech. His best poems raise unexpected connotations, like overheard conversations charged with mysterious power.
He was associated with the New York school of poets, who came of age in the early '60s, influenced by painters like de Kooning and Pollock. While Ashbery valued friendships with Frank O'Hara and other New York school poets, he pointed to differences in their work.
O'Hara, the New York school's other best known member, shared with Ashbery a commitment to the playfulness of language. Both seek to capture significance in life's randomness.
But unlike Ashbery's work, O'Hara's poems are literal, topical, rooted in dailiness. Their meaning is clear, while Ashbery's poems are abstract, imprecise, intentionally incomprehensible.
Like Ashbery, Becker and Fagen sought to bend artistic boundaries. Along with jazz, their music is a blend of rock, pop, the blues, classical, techno and Latin influences. They work is self-consciously literary, their lyrics aspiring to higher poetic significance like Dylan and others.
One can imagine a Steely Dan song an Ashbery poem, and an Ashbery poem like a Steely Dan interlude. Ashbery and Becker were part of the same spectrum, an urban, arty world of music, painting, and avant garde literature. Each man sought to challenge common tastes, yet found widespread acceptance.