Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York and raised on a farm near Lake Ontario. He was educated at Deerfield, Harvard, and Columbia. At high school Ashbery read such poets as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Wallace Stevens. His first ambition was to be a painter. From the age of eleven until fifteen he took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester.
Ashbery has won nearly every major American award for his poetry, beginning with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, selected by W. H. Auden, for his first collection, Some Trees. His early work shows the influence of W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Boris Pasternak, and many of the French surrealists (his translations from French literature are numerous). In the late 1950s, the critic John Bernard Myers categorized the common traits of Ashbery's avant-garde poetry, as well as that of Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie and others, as constituting a "New York School." Ashbery then wrote two collections while in France, The Tennis-Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains, before returning to New York to write The Double-Dream of Spring. The seventies transformed Ashbery from an obscure avant-garde experimentalist into one of America's most important (though also most controversial) poets. After the publication of Three Poems (Ashbery's own favourite collection), Ashbery in 1975 picked up all three major American poetry prizes for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. 1977 reinforced Ashbery's reputation as did As We Know in 1979. Ashbery had become a central figure in American, and English-language poetry in the eighties and nineties, as a number of imitators evidenced. His own poetry was accused of a staleness in this period, but books like A Wave and the later And the Stars Were Shining, particularly in their long poems, show an unmistakably original and great poet in practice.
Ashbery's works are characterized by a free-flowing, often disjunctive syntax, extensive linguistic play, often infused with considerable humor, and a prosaic, sometimes disarmingly flat or parodic tone. The play of the human mind is the subject of a great many of his poems. Ashbery also has written art criticism, collected in "Reported Sightings." He has written three plays and, with James Schuyler, the novel "A Nest of Ninnies." Ashbery's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University were published as "Other Traditions" in 2000. He currently is the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr. Professor at Bard College and is the poet laureate of New York state.