Last Saturday the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), sponsors of the annual NBCC Award, celebrated their thirty-fifth anniversary at a gathering in New York City. John Ashbery, who received the first NBCC Award in poetry in 1976 for his book Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking), spoke at the event about how book critics and the award had influenced his career. (Self Portrait, incidentally, went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.)
Ashbery recalled how a conversation between critic David Kalstone and NBCC founder Elizabeth Hardwick, prompted by a negative review of Self Portrait published in the New York Review of Books, may have influenced his being awarded the book prize, his first.
According to Ashbery, Hardwick had been under the impression that he had won numerous awards, until Kalstone informed her that Ashbery hadn’t received any. (Excepting the honor of having his 1956 collection Some Trees selected for the Yale Younger Poets Series by W. H. Auden.) "Elizabeth [...] seemed to ponder this and said that she’d look into the matter," Ashbery told the attendees of the NBCC gathering. "I'm not sure if that had something to do with my NBCC award, but that happened only a few weeks after the conversation I've described."
He went on to thank the audience of book critics "for letting me come full circle—that is, to be here beaming my gratitude at you, both for what you've done for me personally, not just as regards poetry, but for all the things you write about."
After receiving the 1975 prize, Ashbery was nominated for three additional NBCC awards, for his collections Houseboat Days in 1977, A Wave in 1984, and April Galleons in 1987 (all of the volumes were published by Viking). Earlier this year, Ashbery’s work was recognized by the NBCC yet again, when his translation from the French of Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist (Sheep Meadow Press) was a finalist for the 2008 award in poetry.