"Roffman’s decision to focus solely on Ashbery’s youth pays off...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..."
"This book captures — beautifully — poet John Ashbery’s youth and dreams and struggles.
"As Karin Roffman demonstrates in this illuminating account of his early life, the originality of [Ashbery's] poetic idiom owes as much to his provincial rural upbringing, and to the guilt and nostalgia that was its legacy, as it does to his embrace of the experimental in New York and Paris...in this entertaining and brilliantly researched book."
"By far the most thorough and reliable account of a formative period in the biography of one of our greatest and most mysterious writers...The Songs We Know Best lets us see, clearer than ever before, how the poet's mind works, and how it developed."
"The Songs We Know Best offers clues that help to 'stretch poetry rather than level it', to borrow again from Ashbery. It is fascinating for the stories it uncovers and the material it presents."
"The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life, Karin Roffman's concise and excellent new biography. Ashbery, who turns ninety next month, is a reluctant subject, but Roffman managed to gain access to childhood journals, writings, letters, photographs, and the poet's own memories."
David Atlanta: Beach & Pool Reads 2017
Non-Fiction Now: The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life
These are five books people are talking about this week (June 19, 2017) -- or should be:
"Roffman’s extraordinary book stretches from John Ashbery’s birth in 1927 to 1955, when W. H. Auden’s selected Ashbery’s debut collection for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize."
PW Picks: Book of the Week June 19, 2017
"This biography owes its existence to another stroke of luck. While the author was getting to know Ashbery, she found in his roomy old house early diaries and juvenilia that the author thought no longer existed. Without these she would have had to depend on the memories of people in their 80s. These diaries and early poems provide the keys to his development."
"The Songs We Know Best draws on a great deal of unpublished material: a thousand-page diary Ashbery kept between the ages of thirteen and sixteen; drafts of almost all his adolescent writing; interviews with several close friends; and more than a hundred hours of conversation with the poet himself."
"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."
"Readers of Ashbery's work will enjoy Roffman's deep insight into the poet. Pictures throughout offer visuals of the people and places that shaped Ashbery's writing."
"Roffman delivers a revealing, unprecedented portrait of this artist up to the publication of Some Trees in 1956, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.H. Auden, narrowly beating out Ashbery’s close friend Frank O’Hara."
"With immaculate detail and eloquence, Roffman (From the Modernist Annex) has written the first in-depth biography of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century."