Times Literary Supplement Review: A Poet in Dialogue With His Biography

Picking at soul scabs


In the preface to The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s early life, Karin Roffman suggests that John Ashbery’s newest poems “offer the best indication of his current response” to her biography. Reading Ashbery’s poetry in this way is unusual, because scrutinizing it for descriptions of a reality that exists outside the poems rarely yields meaningful interpretations. There is a noticeable conversational quality, however, to his two most recent collections, Breezeway (2015) and Commotion of the Birds (2016), and readers considering them with Roffman’s recommendation in mind (and her book in hand) might discern intermittent traces of her exploration of Ashbery’s early (and late) life. Throughout both collections, lines offer responses to the kinds of questions a biographer might ask, abstractly evoking the biographical process, or “picking at soul scabs” (to borrow a phrase from “Depraved Indifference” in Commotion of the Birds).

Several poems suggest that Ashbery’s “current response”…

pressKarin Roffman