The poet John Ashbery died on September 3. The praise that followed his death, with several commentators calling him the greatest American poet of the past half-century, shows how much he is esteemed by critics and fellow poets. Shortly before Ashbery died, Karin Roffman published The Songs We Know Best, a biography of his early life. Any biography of Ashbery is bound to raise interesting questions about the relationship between life and art. If one reads the poetry of Ashbery’s almost exact contemporary James Merrill, one gets a rich sense of his life—of the places where he lived and traveled, of his friendships and love affairs, and of his emotional life. Most of Ashbery’s poems are much less obviously confessional and much more elusive. They provide few ordinary narrative guideposts and are full of odd shifts of register and tone. Ashbery said that while he wrote out of his experiences, he did not write about them. His poems begin, so he claimed, past the point where one reports on the kind of personal happenings common to all.
Roffman met Ashbery when both were teaching at Bard College. She has portrayed his early life up until the moment, in his late twenties, when he won a Fulbright fellowship to France and was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series. Ashbery provided her with two sources not previously available: a thousand pages of entries from the diary he kept from age thirteen to age sixteen and a box of poems, plays, and stories he wrote as an adolescent. She interviewed former friends and classmates, consulted the papers of his well-known associates, and read Ashbery letters already available elsewhere. Importantly, Ashbery offered her a series of long interviews over several years. All this access makes the biography read like a novel, with a novel’s immediacy, detail, and confident narration of past scenes, with the tone almost of an omniscient narrator. In perhaps 120 cases or so, a citation directs the reader to these Ashbery interviews. Of course, Roffman was interviewing a man in his late eighties who was recalling events from many decades earlier. Was he accurate and fair in recalling tensions with various classmates and possible lovers, most of whom had already died? That question is not raised here. In any case, the fan of Ashbery’s poetry is likely more interested in his version of events than in an objective account. Roffman has corroborated his stories when other witnesses were available. And getting such long personal interviews with Ashbery while he was alive provides a valuable emotional history.
John Ashbery’s early life was of a certain familiar type. He grew up in a small town in upstate New York. His father owned a farm and orchard, where John picked cherries and sold them by the roadside. John disliked sports, felt different and lonely, had a rich interior life, and designed fantasy games and theatricals with playmates. He wrote poetry and painted, was attracted to boys and felt guilty about it, and was determined to use his intellect and his artistic ability to escape to the city and make a name for himself. After winning a local competition, he was invited to participate in a national radio show called “Quiz Kids.” The tragedy of his early life is that his only sibling, a younger brother preferred by his father because of his easy charm and athletic skill, died of leukemia. Ashbery was mostly left on his own to train himself as a poet through the popular collections that he found at the public library, and as an adolescent he developed a special interest in the work of three female poets: Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marianne Moore. A rich woman with a summer home near his farm was impressed by him and recommended him to the headmaster of Deerfield Academy. At Deerfield he joined an art club made up of boys who saw themselves as outsiders, and was acclaimed for his performances in female roles in plays put on at the all-boys school—though he was also teased by some classmates for his gait amid rumors that he was homosexual. At Harvard he wrote for the Advocate and developed a liking for classical music (Alban Berg and Francis Poulenc were two of his favorite composers). His academic work was uneven, but he read widely. He studied seventeenth-century poets, Wallace Stevens, and Proust. His senior thesis was on Auden.