BookPage Review: A Poet's Roots

From the June issue of BookPage by Robert Weibezahl:

John Ashbery, who turns 90 in July, is one of America’s most venerable, if challenging, poets. His work—which has won nearly every major poetry honor, beginning with the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book, Some Trees—is at once lyrical and disjunctive, as epigrammatic as it is puzzling. Karin Roffman opens a welcoming doorway into this poet’s life and work with her engaging, in-depth biography of Ashbery’s early life, The Songs We Know Best (FSG, $30, 336 pages, ISBN 9780374293840). A professor and literary critic, Roffman befriended Ashbery in 2005, and the book is drawn from hours of conversation with the poet as well as the unprecedented access he granted her to personal papers dating back to his childhood.

The Songs We Know Best spans the first 28 years of Ashbery’s life, from his birth in 1927 until 1955, the year his first book was accepted for publication and he left for France to begin a Fulbright. By concentrating on these early years, Roffman has shaped her study around the youthful concerns and conflicts that formed the man and his poetry. Given her direct relationship with her subject, she is able to provide a remarkable quantity of detail—not merely the external facts, but also the internal thoughts and struggles of the artist as a young man. 

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a fruit farm in nearby Sodus. His father was an inveterate farmer, and Ashbery’s paternal grandfather was a professor. Education and culture were valued by his grandfather especially, and young John showed great intelligence and talent from the start—he appeared on the national radio show “Quiz Kids” at age 14—and knew from an early age that he was meant for something more far-reaching than the family business. Ashbery’s relationship with his father was complicated, often contentious, although one gets the sense from Roffman’s telling that the father valued his son, even if he did not fully understand him. The tragic death from leukemia of Ashbery’s 9-year-old younger brother, Richard, whom their father favored, had a lasting effect on the family and the future poet. 

A key element Roffman explores throughout this coming-of-age narrative is Ashbery’s growing awareness of his homosexuality. As with many young gay people—most certainly in the mid-20th century—this sexual awakening was a process that began with confusion touched by shame, but ultimately Ashbery embraced his identity and drew upon it for his work. Roffman sensitively mines these themes in the poet’s earliest writing, including previously unpublished juvenilia. Ashbery’s intellectual preoccupations, poetic sensibilities and romantic desires grew stronger at Deerfield Academy (where he was a scholarship student) and then at Harvard, where he made such indelible friends as fellow poet Frank O’Hara and Barbara Epstein, co-founder of The New York Review of Books. Roffman’s lively portrait of Ashbery’s post-college bohemian years in New York City in the early 1950s captures the artistic energy and youthful ambition of his impressive circle of friends and fellow artists.

Many poets draw on their personal experiences in their art, and Roffman convincingly shows that “even in his earliest writing, Ashbery is drawn to specific moments when one’s understanding transforms.” With its sharp, informed and unsentimental insight into both the man and his work, The Songs We Know Best is an invaluable biography of a masterful artist.

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pressKarin Roffman