The Guardian: Review of The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life
by Mark Ford
Wednesday 19 July 2017 09.00 EDTLast modified on Friday 21 July 2017 19.10 EDT
The American poet John Ashbery, who turns 90 this month, is often figured as the epitome of cosmopolitan sophistication – as a refined but radical innovator whose open-ended lyrics and narrative-free long poems refract and dramatise the anxieties of postmodernity. Doyen of the avant garde Ashbery may have become, and yet, as Karin Roffman demonstrates in this illuminating account of his early life, the originality of his poetic idiom owes as much to his provincial rural upbringing, and to the compound of guilt and nostalgia that was its legacy, as it does to his embrace of the experimental in New York and Paris.
Ashbery’s parents, Chester and Helen, ran a fruit farm about a mile south of Lake Ontario, where winters are long and snowy. Chet, as his father was known, could be ill tempered. “He used to wallop me a great deal,” Ashbery recalled in an interview, “so I felt always as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” I’ve often wondered if the evasiveness of Ashbery’s poetry, its habit of tiptoeing or sliding around a crisis in states ranging from mild apprehension to ominous foreboding, reflects the simmering domestic tensions of these early years.
Young Ashbery escaped whenever he could to the reassuring home of his maternal grandparents, Henry and Addie Lawrence, who were more interested in artistic and intellectual matters. Indeed, since there was no kindergarten in Sodus, the small town nearest to the Ashbery homestead, he spent much of the first seven years of his life living in Rochester with Addie and Henry, who was a professor of physics at the university. It was there he developed a taste for reading, poring over The Child’s Book of Poetry in his grandparents’ well-stocked library, as well as Things to Make and Things to Do, a volume affectionately parodied in his first great long poem, “The Skaters”.
Alas, on his grandfather’s retirement in 1934, the Lawrences moved permanently to their lakeside cottage in Pultneyville, and Ashbery was returned to his father’s uncertain temper, which had been put under further strain by the onset of the Great Depression. Roffman eloquently sketches his isolated, restless days on the farm, his dislike of the chores that devolved to a farmer’s son (no budding Robert Frost he), and his sense of failing to measure up to his parents’ expectations. His younger brother Richard, born in 1931, fitted in better with what Chet and Helen had hoped for from a male offspring: “He was interested in sports and life on the farm,” Ashbery later commented of his younger sibling, who died aged 10 of leukaemia, “and would probably have been straight and married and had children, and not been the disappointment that I undoubtedly was to my parents”.
The wonderful late poem, “The History of My Life”, directly addresses his response to this loss: “Once upon a time there were two brothers. / Then there was only one: myself. / I grew up fast, before learning to drive, / even. There was I: a stinking adult.” It is perversely appropriate that he uses that favourite adjective of children, “stinking”, to describe the unacceptable aspects of his adulthood. Chet tellingly had framed and prominently displayed a picture of Richard in the act of throwing a football as a treasured image of his ideal son.
Although Ashbery is the least confessional of poets, the upstate New York landscapes and lake vistas of his early years are often filtered into his poems in obliquely revealing ways. His longest poem, Flow Chart (1991), was begun in the wake of his mother’s death, and features numerous passages that evoke his life on the farm, or at his grandparents’ houses in Rochester and then Pultneyville (where Ashbery spent a series of idyllic summers), as well as elliptical characterisations of the tedium and excitements of childhood and adolescence. As Roffman demonstrates in close readings of poems such as the very early “Lost Cove”, Ashbery’s need to make his works present generic or “one-size-fits-all” transcriptions of experience, applicable to anyone, never wholly obscures their origins in the personal.
She also suggests that the cryptic aspects of his work can be related back to his dawning awareness of his homosexuality. From 1941 to 1945 he kept a series of diaries, which he strongly suspected were periodically read by his mother. Shortly before his 14th birthday, he and a male friend of the same age hugged and kissed and fondled each other, and he ejaculated for the first time. This event was commemorated in his journal with a fractured sequence of words that would not look out of place in his most disjunctive volume of poems, The Tennis Court Oathof 1962: “tulip garden / old dutch / home all our own until / recall once more / fashion in shows / dog cast in / days before …” This reads like an embryo version of a poem such as “Leaving the Atocha Station”, which, with its reference to “mouthing the root”, is in fact rather more explicit.
There was little chance of his mother decoding such a seemingly random set of phrases, although she may have wondered what her son was hiding. But when, in 1945, he inadvertently left an unsealed letter describing in bawdy detail his attraction to a classmate, one Phil Van Dusen, on his bedside table, whatever suspicions she had were confirmed. A hysterical outburst followed. Helen promised not to tell his father, but Roffman discovered in the course of her researches that she did so. Deeply dismayed, Chet sought counsel from a family friend, but never raised the subject with his aberrant but evidently gifted son – Ashbery was at Harvard by this stage.
The strange mixture of telling and not telling is fundamental to the hypnotic appeal of his poetry
The strange mixture of telling and not telling, of open secrets never explicitly mentioned, that is fundamental to the hypnotic, riddling appeal of Ashbery’s poetry, surely evolved out of his fraught and guilt-ridden need to conceal his sexuality from his parents, a need complicated by a counter-longing to disclose all.
At Harvard he met the poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, and was elected to the board of the Harvard Advocate, the art and literary magazine. He also composed some extraordinarily good poems, including “The Painter” and “Some Trees”, which – on the insistence of WH Auden, who kickstarted Ashbery’s publishing career by choosing him for the Yale Younger Poets award of 1956 – would become the title poem of his first volume. Both in Harvard and then in New York, where he lived from 1949 to 1955, Ashbery found himself in circles of brilliant, artistically inclined and often gay men and women, but seems never to have felt as exuberantly at home in these shifting coteries as the effervescent O’Hara. A portrait by Fairfield Porter of 1952 – one of the many superb illustrations included in this book – presents a slumped and melancholy figure. He fell in love often and deeply, but Roffman records more disappointments and frustrations than triumphs. Until, that is, the annus mirabilis of 1955.
That year he applied for a Fulbright scholarship to go to France, only to be rejected; and submitted his manuscript to Yale, whose first readers deemed it unworthy of Auden’s consideration. In early summer Ashbery departed on holiday to Mexico in low spirits, but on his return found a Fulbright scholar had withdrawn, making a place available for him; and that, through the good offices of poet Chester Kallman, Auden had not only read but chosen his manuscript (at that point simply called Poems) for the Yale Younger Poets prize. The last photo in this entertaining and brilliantly researched book shows a dapper young Ashbery in a smart overcoat on the streets of Montpellier. I think he is almost smiling.
The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, price £23