The New York Times Book Review
BOOK REVIEW | NONFICTION
A Fascinating Deep Dive Into John Ashbery’s Early Years
By ANDREW EPSTEIN AUG. 3, 2017
THE SONGS WE KNOW BEST
John Ashbery’s Early Life
By Karin Roffman
Illustrated. 316 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.
“My own autobiography has never interested me very much,” John Ashbery once told an interviewer. “Whenever I try to think about it, I seem to draw a complete blank.” Over the course of his long career as one of America’s most celebrated poets, Ashbery has fiercely defied a central premise of the lyric poetic tradition: that a poem should be a “song of myself,” an utterance that springs from the circumstances of the writer’s life and gives insight into the author’s mind and feelings. “I have always been averse to talking about myself and so I don’t write about my life the way the confessional poets do,” he has said. Instead, Ashbery aims to create “paradigms of common experience which I hope other people can share.” “What I am trying to get at is a general, all-purpose experience — like those stretch socks that fit all sizes,” he once explained. In the process, Ashbery has developed a radical, new kind of poetry, marked by ambiguous, shifting pronouns, a collage of different voices and styles, and a tantalizing elusiveness in which stable identity and closure are continually deferred.
Ashbery’s aversion to autobiographical revelation has often led critics to assume that his life story offers little help in understanding his challenging poetry. But it would seem the poet doth protest too much. Ashbery’s writing has always been suffused with nostalgia for the world of his childhood, meditations on the experience of growing up and moments of disguised autobiography. It’s just that the connections between his life and his poetry are, in his own words, “very close but oblique,” which makes him a particularly tricky subject for a literary biography.
This is the challenge that Karin Roffman, the author of “From the Modernist Annex,” gamely takes up in “The Songs We Know Best,” the first full-fledged biography of Ashbery, who has just turned 90. Readers hungry to learn about the full sweep of the poet’s long life will have to wait, though, as Roffman’s narrative only brings us up to the moment Ashbery’s career as a poet is about to begin. Her story comes to a halt just as the 27-year-old’s first book is chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Prize by one of his heroes, W. H. Auden.
Roffman’s decision to focus solely on Ashbery’s youth pays off, however, because this crucial period of Ashbery’s life has been little explored or understood, and because she manages to fill in the familiar but vague outlines with such rich and fascinating detail gleaned from exhaustive research — especially her deep dive into unpublished early poems, newly uncovered diaries and extensive interviews with Ashbery himself. The result is a treasure trove for scholars, fans and casual readers alike.
Ashbery may humbly profess that his own experiences can’t possibly be of interest, but they are interesting, especially in Roffman’s deft telling. Like a classic bildungsroman, “The Songs We Know Best” tells the story of a shy, sensitive, preternaturally gifted boy who weathers a lonely childhood on a farm, awakens to the joys and mysteries of art, poetry and sex as a teenager, and finally assumes his true vocation as a poet when he arrives in the big city and falls in with a circle of revolutionary writers and artists. It is also an affecting narrative about growing up gay in a virulently hostile, intolerant culture — a moving portrait of an artist who not only survived that ordeal as a young man but became, improbably enough, one of the greatest poets of his age.
Born in 1927, Ashbery grew up on a fruit farm in the small village of Sodus in western New York. His boyhood was marked by a difficult relationship with his distant, rage-prone father, who seemed to disdain his son’s lack of interest in “manly” pursuits like farming and sports, and to favor his more athletic and “normal” younger brother, Richard. Bored with the farm and Depression-era small-town life, teased for being a “sissy” and confused and ashamed about his sexual identity, the young Ashbery found escape routes wherever he could: reading voraciously, going to the movies, inventing magical kingdoms with a small group of kids he called the “Knight Club,” and poring over a Life magazine feature on Dada and Surrealism he fell in love with as a 9-year-old. Ashbery soon discovered poetry to be one of the most satisfying modes of escape, as Roffman shows in her discussion of his remarkably precocious early poems, including a “tiny tour de force” he wrote when he was just 8. She also tells, for the first time, the full story of the central tragedy of Ashbery’s early years: the sudden loss of his brother to leukemia when the poet was 12. Although he has rarely spoken about it, this staggering early blow lingers in the recesses of Ashbery’s mature work, lending his writing a basso continuo of transience, elegy and loss.
The next stop on Ashbery’s gradual escape from the hinterlands was boarding school at the elite Deerfield Academy in western Massachusetts, which he was able to attend thanks to the benevolence of a neighbor who saw great promise in the young prodigy. At Deerfield, he continued to feel like an outsider, but also began to write in earnest and to read deeply in modernist poets like Auden, Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore. His liberation only accelerated at Harvard, where he met two friends who would change the course of his career, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. Soon after graduating, the three would gather in Manhattan to form the nucleus of the New York School of poets, which has come to be viewed as one of the most prominent and influential movements in the history of American poetry.
Reading the later chapters, one can’t help cheering as the lonely, odd kid from the sticks finally finds himself at the center of the exciting literary and art world of postwar New York — a cosmopolitan, sexually open milieu, buzzing with painters and poets, playwrights and musicians, who all drink profusely, sleep with one another, collaborate and argue about art and ideas. When we last see him, Ashbery is poised at a crossroads, his apprenticeship complete and the future cresting like a wave about to break. It’s heartening to know there is so much — happy years in Paris, enduring love, sharp losses of parents and best friends, enormous success and recognition, much of his best writing — still to come.
“The Songs We Know Best” offers up a feast of new details, documents and colorful anecdotes that will be foundational for any future understanding of Ashbery. It seems less interested in, and less successful at, analyzing how all these formative experiences give rise to the specific features of Ashbery’s notoriously difficult and idiosyncratic work. Can we attribute Ashbery’s distinctive style and philosophy of life to the “early lessons” of his youthful experiences, to the need to conceal his sexual identity in a homophobic culture, to the books he read and ideas he encountered as he grew up? Can we ever locate the roots of a self, of a poet’s mind and words, in the far-off land of childhood?
Surely Ashbery himself would not be surprised that this biography doesn’t solve the riddle of how his youth shaped his identity and his writing. After all, gnawing on that puzzle is the purpose of the poetry itself. As he wrote in his 40s, “Our question of a place of origin hangs / Like smoke.” That question will presumably loom forever, hazy and unresolved, as it does for all of us. But at least, thanks to this invaluable book, we now have a much clearer and more tangible sense of Ashbery himself and of his origins.
Andrew Epstein, a professor of English at Florida State University, is the author of “Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture.”
A version of this review appears in print on August 6, 2017, on Page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: His True Vocation.