The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life, by Karin Roffman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pages. $30.
“What does it mean?????????????” John Ashbery wrote more than fifty years ago in The Tennis Court Oath, his second book of poems. The very exuberance of the punctuation may have sounded a note of caution for any readers who were looking for quick answers. (Perhaps thirteen question marks were an unlucky omen.) Since then, though, his work has been translated into twenty-five languages, and many would claim that a typical Ashbery poem speaks twenty-five languages. Even the poet has cast quizzical side-glances at his perplexing career. “I tell myself it all seems like fun and will work out in the end,” he noted in 1987. “I expect I will be asked a question I can answer and then handed a big prize. They’re working on it.” Several big prizes later, as he approaches his ninetieth birthday, Ashbery is still working on “it,” still wondering what “it” is. In 2006, when New York’s city council declared April 7 John Ashbery Day, the poet couldn’t resist asking: “But what does a John Ashbery Day mean? Are people going to stop and pause and think for a minute?”
Maybe we could use that sixty-second silence to cast our minds back to the time before he made a name for himself. Ashbery was nearly fifty when Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, his seventh collection, finally brought him widespread acclaim in 1975, and although he already had the makings of an audience, he didn’t quite have a public. Some aspects of his youth, particularly the early 1950s in New York, have received attention — David Lehman’s sprightly study The Last Avant-Gardecomes to mind — but Karin Roffman’s new book is the first comprehensive biography of his childhood. The Songs We Know Bestdraws on a great deal of unpublished material: a thousand-page diary Ashbery kept between the ages of thirteen and sixteen; drafts of almost all his adolescent writing; interviews with several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. “I’m sometimes kind of jealous of my work,” Ashbery once observed. “It keeps getting all the attention and I’m not. After all, I wrote it.” Roffman redresses the balance while also keeping a close eye on the work; her aim, in fact, is to reveal “an intertwining of life and art in extraordinarily intimate ways.”
The biography is certainly revealing, but it’s noteworthy that the poem from which Roffman takes her title raises some doubts about intimacy: “Or do ya still think that I’m somebody else?” Ashbery has said that “artists are no fun once they have been discovered.” Roffman’s portrait of the artist as a young man made me think of what the young man said to his friend and fellow poet Kenneth Koch when they were undergraduates at Harvard in the 1940s: “I try to erect a smokescreen near the end of my poems so I can withdraw unperceived — I never like to be around for the last line.”
The songs, poems, and lives we know best frequently tell us how little we know. Although Ashbery is fascinated by biography — Roffman says that his enthusiasm for the mode is “at the service of his desire to become a better reader of the writers he liked” — many of his favorite writers drew attention to the limited ability of life writing to explain either the self or the work. As Gertrude Stein, one of Ashbery’s first literary loves, wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography: “Identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself.” Ashbery’s work — often funny-amusing as well as funny-peculiar — has flourished in such knots of conviction and incredulity. In the early poem “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” he is inclined to call the “comic version of myself” — that is, the childhood self he’s recalling — the “true one,” and part of the truth of this springs from the comedy of imagining that you have a self to call your own. (“My life story,” he writes elsewhere: “I am toying with the idea.”)
The question so often asked of Ashbery’s poetry — “What does it mean?????????????” — is one that the poetry asks of his life, although neither the question nor any possible answer to it is ever allowed to steal the show. He is not so much concerned with what one’s life story adds up to as with what it may subtract from.
Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927. His father, Chet, was a fruit farmer, and his mother, Helen, had been a biology teacher before she married. The family lived on the farm in the tiny village of Sodus, although during his early years Ashbery spent much of his time with his grandparents in neighboring Pultneyville. From an early age, Ashbery showed a strong aversion to the farmhouse and farm life — sources of pride for his father — which, Roffman points out, only fueled tensions in the family. In interviews he has noted that “my grandfather was a prominent physicist and also a very cultivated and completely self-made person”; he took an interest in his grandson’s education, “displacing my father,” “encouraging me to be whatever I wanted to be.” Chet had a violent temper; “he used to wallop me a great deal,” the poet has recalled, “often for no reason I could detect, so I always felt as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” Ashbery’s father once asked him whom he loved more, his father or his mother. “Mother, of course,” the boy shot back, before feeling ashamed of his answer. That a parent would even pose such a question — to a child not yet four years old — is what gives you pause. Some forty years later, when an interviewer suggested that his poetry was marked by both love and hatred of the experience of communication, Ashbery said, “We want to communicate and we hate the idea of being forced to. I think it’s something that should be noticed.” And poems, like people, want to be noticed without necessarily being put on the spot.
In 1931, Ashbery’s brother, Richard, was born. Chet and Richard had similar personalities (“exuberant, outdoorsy, athletic”); Ashbery increasingly felt that his brother was a pest and he himself an outsider. Then, when the outsider was twelve years old, two things happened: He began to feel strong homosexual urges (he kept his desires secret, fearful that he was “the only one so afflicted”), and Richard died suddenly of leukemia. It was sudden, at least, for Ashbery. The full severity of Richard’s condition had been kept from him, and even the final outcome was relayed at two removes — his grandfather was left to tell him that his parents had just called with some bad news.
Excluded from his brother’s death and from the funeral (Chet and Helen arranged for him to be taken on a picnic), Ashbery perhaps had reason to feel both aggrieved and culpable. Nearly sixty years later, his poem “The History of My Life” began:
Once upon a time there were two brothers. Then there was only one: myself.
Encountering a gap instead of an explanation, we are left to infer a tone — bereft, triumphant, blankly dissociative? — and to wonder whether the speaker imagines himself a latter-day Cain. Whatever he feels, he considers himself a brother even after he has ceased to be one. That missing brother remained somewhere in mind, if not always wholly in view. In his long, haunting poem “The Skaters,” Ashbery speaks of how his lines often leave “nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still.” This young man was never simply living his life; his mother and father “were now pinning all their hopes on me,” he said later. “Richard would probably have been straight, and married and had children, and not been the disappointment that I undoubtedly was to my parents.”
While Richard was dying, Ashbery was flying through eighth grade — and winning the district spelling bee (the only student with a perfect score). In the months following the death, though, even simple words presented stumbling blocks. His parents had sent him away to stay with relatives and he wrote home to say that he had purchased some new “songlasses.” Perhaps he needed protection from the glaring grief for the other son. Or perhaps the word swings the other way, into “song-lasses,” suggesting that this son, who was already being mocked at school for being a “sissy,” was nevertheless going to make his own music. Ashbery would become the poet for whom errata were desiderata (“error is plaited into desires not yet born,” he would write in “The Skaters”), the poet who stayed committed to making mistakes, sensing that at least mistakes were something you made. A couple of months after Richard’s death, he went to Syracuse to compete in the state spelling bee; he was asked to spell desperately, but was out of the competition almost as soon as he opened his mouth: “D-E-S-P-A —” Excluding its cognates, only one common word in English begins with those letters; you might say the boy had taken desperate measures to express his own despair.
The death of the brother also led to the birth of the writer: A few months after Richard died, Ashbery’s mother bought him his first diary. Roffman quotes liberally from this to create a vivid picture of the young man’s developing sensibility and sexuality. “Doing nothing vigorously,” he wrote one evening, which nicely captures his manner on and off the page. (“Lazy and quick,” the painter Fairfield Porter would later say of him.) Ashbery’s teenage years were spent staving off the loneliness and boredom of village life by inventing imaginary kingdoms and cultivating a passion for reading, music, and art. (He’d first wanted to become a painter, and later made a living as an art critic for twenty-five years.) He won a spot on the national radio show Quiz Kids and was later awarded a prize in Time magazine’s high school essay competition on current affairs.
On the question of the perceived “difficulty” of his poetry, Ashbery has said that when you talk to other people they eventually lose interest, but when you talk to yourself, they want to listen in. His first experience of this curious situation came, I think, when he discovered that his mother was secretly reading his diary. To thwart her, he developed a new kind of language in which to write about his feelings.
As the first anniversary of Richard’s death approached, Ashbery and a male friend shared a bed, hugged, kissed, and fondled each other. A few days later, his diary entry is veiled, subliminal, suggestible:
tulip garden old dutch home all our own until recall once more fashion in shows dog cast in days before were almost learning to forget happy fear came from a trough kin
Roffman calls this Ashbery’s “first original modernist poem.” One senses the influence of surrealism too; a few years earlier he’d been fascinated by an article in Life on Fantastic Art: Dadaism and Surrealism, an exhibition that had opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Surrealist writers and artists would remain important to him. (He first read Rimbaud, for example, when he was sixteen, and published a beautiful translation of his Illuminations nearly seventy years later.) Here, in this proto-poem, the welter of objects both seductive and unyielding (from “tulip” to “trough”); the blend of Edenic bliss (“garden,” “home all our own”) and whimsical, postlapsarian knowledge (almost learning to forget); the tangled feelings (what makes you “happy” needn’t be all that far from what you “fear”); the possible intertwining of different senses of “kin” and kinship (familial, sexual) — all have the makings of a particular style and outlook.
Ashbery would later describe some of his poems as diaries; Flow Chart (1991) was composed over a seven-month period, beginning soon after the death of his mother and ending on July 28, 1988. (The final section of the poem is even dated on the original typescript — the sixty-first anniversary of the day his mother became a mother: his birthday.) “I free-associate,” Ashbery has said, “and come up with all kinds of material that doesn’t belong — but does.” For a person who grew up around what he called “the majority who disapprove,” free association — and the freedom to make associations — becomes both protection and defiance. It’s a dream of inclusion and acceptance too; talking about material that “doesn’t belong — but does,” Ashbery is also talking about himself.
Roffman sticks close to her subject. Three times on the first page she is willing to tell us what he “felt,” and she tends to refer to “John” rather than to “Ashbery” when relating what he experienced, as opposed to what he wrote. Her detective work is nonetheless assiduous (she’s tracked down manuscripts, report cards, his first boyfriend, and much else besides); she’s even found proof that his father did in fact know he was gay. (Ashbery hadn’t been sure.) Nearly every page of The Songs We Know Best contains new material for which to be grateful. The latter half, in particular, becomes the story of how the poet went inside his feelings of being on the outside, and became assured enough to be unsure.
Thanks to the kind offices of a neighbor, Ashbery was sent to Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts (“a sort of jock, upper-class WASP school,” he recalls, “which I didn’t fit into at all”). Classmates looked down on the poor scholarship boy, taunting him with rumors about his sexuality. One response to the predicament of being surrounded by unreachable people is to become the unreadable person, which perhaps helps to account for the strange blend of coolness and shyness in Ashbery’s early work, the sense of writing intent on going its own way even while it remains on the lookout for potential collaborators (or co-conspirators). In “The Thinnest Shadow”:
A face looks from the mirror As if to say, “Be supple, young man, Since you can’t be gay.”
Ashbery’s arrival at Harvard in 1945 drastically altered his sense of what he could and could not be. (“I don’t give a healthy damn,” he wrote, “been living rather dangerously of late . . . feel saturated with vice.”) His other passions — the movies, modern music, painting — were also given more space to breathe, and he grew close to Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, both of whom were brilliant, enthusiastic readers of their friend’s work.
When O’Hara pronounced Ashbery’s debut collection, Some Trees (1956), “the finest first book in America to appear since Harmonium,” he was acknowledging his friend’s debt to Wallace Stevens as well as signaling the arrival of a rare talent. The collection is influenced by other poets too — Ashbery has himself spoken of the importance of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and, of course, W. H. Auden, who selected Some Trees for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956.
But you also hear a new voice that sounds unlike any other. The opening words of the first five poems in the collection — “We see us,” “He continued to,” “Slowly all your,” “As I sit looking out,” “Of who we are and all they are / You all now know” — highlight the knowingly unknowing play of pronoun and identity that is one of the signatures of that voice. A paradigmatic Ashbery utterance, Koch ventured, would be something like: “It wants to go to bed with us.” “It,” not “I”; “us,” not “you”; O’Hara hinted at a similar mixture of the desirous and the impersonal when he observed that Ashbery “is always marrying the whole world,” which nicely raises the question of whether he’s the priest or half of the couple — and, indeed, whether the union is meant to last (alwaysmarrying?). The title poem of that first collection looks ahead to the rueful ecstasies of the later work, its coalescences of intimacy and estrangement. It was “definitely written about somebody I was in love with,” Ashbery has indefinitively observed.
These are amazing: each Joining a neighbor, as though speech Were a still performance. Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning From the world as agreeing? With it, you and I? Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:? That their merely being there? Means something; that soon? We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented? Such comeliness, we are surrounded:? A silence already filled with noises,? A canvas on which emerges
A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.? Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,? Our days put on such reticence? These accents seem their own defense
Ashbery has long been the singer of the present as it slips away into lost past or unrealized future, but he is also an apprehender of the here and now as both bequest and promise. (The here includes everything that brought us here; the now is a portent of the not-quite-yet.) Surrounded by enthralled, instantaneous jolts — “These are amazing,” “this morning,” “These accents” — we wonder at first why the trees are “there,” not “here.” (In the first draft Ashbery had plumped for the more predictable “here.”) And yet “there” is right: the trees stand realized but at a remove; they mean but they mean only “something,” as near and as far from him as anything else he loves. In the concluding talk of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard (published as Other Traditions in 2000), Ashbery quoted these lines by David Schubert:
But the poem is just this Speaking of what cannot be said To the person I want to say it.
“A magnificent definition,” Ashbery added, “not only of Schubert’s poetry but of poetry itself.” The “accents” of “Some Trees” may be those on the canvas the poet has helped to paint, or of the words he wishes could be said; either way, rarely has defense felt so lacking in defensiveness, or reticence so responsive. “Soon / We may touch, love, explain.” Yes: soon . . . may.
In keeping with her subject’s attraction to imminence, and with his love of the aleatory and serendipitous (“arranging by chance”), Roffman’s book ends in 1955, on the eve of the publication of Some Trees, with the twenty-eight-year-old poet about to board ship for France. (He was originally meant to be there for one year as a Fulbright scholar, but stayed a decade.) The life he had begun at Harvard, the one he’d extended when he moved to New York after graduating in 1949, appears to be as full as any “early” life could get: composing and acting in plays, taking part in a short film, working on a novel with James Schuyler, collaborating with artists, publishing translations of French writers, writing more poems, traveling to Mexico, holding down various jobs — the list could go on. But Ashbery wasn’t standing still, and there were other parts of the world he wanted to marry. On the first page of his most famous poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” he speaks of “a recurring wave / Of arrival.” The phrase sums up his relish for the teeming and the transient, with a “wave” signifying a greeting, a valediction, and a repeated shape or rhythm. At the end of The Songs We Know Best, we conceive of him just as he so often conceives of and waves to himself: rooted, and en route.
Roffman interweaves the life story with commentary on the work, and although the commentary sometimes tends toward bland paraphrase, it helpfully returns us to the question — one that Ashbery has himself continued to put in various ways — of what we might wish to do with his poetry, and of how biographical cravings may help or hinder that goal. Some of the poet’s most prominent critical champions have been his keenest exegetes, yet Ashbery isn’t ever simply looking for understanding, either for himself or for the writers and artists he admires. “One must misread [Laura] Riding in order to be enriched by her,” he observes; and if the writing isn’t strong enough to merit misreading, it isn’t poetry. He has often said that the artist’s role is to make himself misunderstood, but such a position needn’t be taken as mere obfuscation. It might be entertained as a sort of blessing or benediction, something akin to the one he offers in “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name”:
Something Ought to be written about how this affects You when you write poetry: The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you For other centers of communication, so that understanding May begin, and in doing so be undone.
This has Ashbery’s characteristically wry combination of elegy and élan. We might assume that he fears being understood because then he will be tossed aside. To decipher is to desert. Yet it is also for the sake of others, and for “other centers,” that the poet imagines something transpiring between breaths. “An idea,” he notes elsewhere, “to mean anything to anybody, must be conjugated, made kinetic, be on its way to some other place.” And, as it goes on its way, it will undergo a metamorphosis. Ashbery believes in a proliferation of meaning — even an absence of meaning — that nonetheless means us well.
This belief bears directly on the question of his poetry’s relation to life — our life as well as his. In Chinese Whispers (2002) — an apt title, given Ashbery’s pleasure in what may occur when poems are passed from reader to reader — one lyric begins:
Now I have neither back nor front. I am the way certain persons are who never tell you how they are yet you know they are like you and they are.
David Bromwich has suggested that when Ashbery refers to “you,” he “means only himself, farther in,” which I take to mean that the poet’s paying of his addresses is a way for him to retreat into isolation and inwardness. But perhaps “you” is not “only” that, for he is also discerning — or yearning for — an echo of himself in others. True, fellow feeling may be mere projection, but the lines above say that what you know is only that certain persons are “like” you, and likeness bespeaks difference even as it conjures up an avowal of community amid strangeness. Elsewhere Ashbery describes his poem “Soonest Mended” as a “ ‘one-size-fits-all confessional poem’ about my youth and maturing but also about anybody else’s,” and he notes of the memories recounted in “The Skaters” that they were “ones that anybody would use if they were thinking autobiographically.” This poet writes in the faith that his readers are like him. And they are.
We perhaps tend to regard Ashbery as a Surrealist, avant-garde figure, so it seems more than a little counterintuitive to think of him as a utilitarian poet, but he really is committed to making things we can use. He offers himself as both our companion and our catalyst; “I have / Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live,” he writes in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” Still, if we allow him to live or lodge there, our daily lives begin to feel and look different.
Ashbery’s favorite collection alongside Houseboat Days (1977) — and, for me, his most deliriously useful book — is Three Poems (1972), from which I dare not quote for fear of not knowing when to stop. Instead, a snippet from an interview with John Koethe in 1983:
ashbery: When I decided to write Three Poems, I couldn’t figure out what to write, so I asked my psychoanalyst. . . . And he said, “Well, let’s see, what could you do? Why don’t you try thinking about people who have meant a lot to you in your life and then instead of writing about them, write about what you feel when you think about them?” So I did. I thought about the various people whom I was in love with and my dead brother and my parents, and so on.
koethe: Is there any discernible connection between what you wrote while thinking of these people and the people themselves?
ashbery: Sort of. I won’t tell you what it is.
The poet is being hospitable, not evasive; he doesn’t want us to worry too much about his story because that’s not where the action is. His hope is that the reader will instead nurture the capacity for rapt distraction that helped bring the poem into being. Reading Three Poems is a bit like reading The Prelude or In Search of Lost Time; it makes you feel as though you’re being absorbed into a trance, or dream, or hallucination that you are somehow helping to shape. (As Ashbery puts it in “Fragment,” “The part in which you read about yourself / Grew out of this.”) When you encounter a phrase like “remembering just how the light stood on the water that time,” you are not being asked to picture or to unriddle the poet’s memory, but to use his memory to reignite yours. You become distracted by the work, distracted from it, plummeting into your own past while your past floods back, transfigured, to start a new conversation with your present. This, for Ashbery, is what biography or poetry is for. As he says in “Clepsydra,” both to his various selves and to us:
The past is yours, to keep invisible if you wish But also to make absurd elaborations with And in this way prolong your dance of non-discovery.
Part of what makes Ashbery so absurdly good is his faith in the essential goodness of the absurd. He’s one of our most truly encouraging poets on account of his willingness to let himself go, to let the social self (call it “character” or “personality”) deliquesce into the anarchic, labile, inner chemistry of selfhood. His favorite American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote to him in 1973 after she read Three Poems:
At first I felt extremely baffled — only a sense of “motion” and the extremely good writing led me on — but now after many re-readings I think I am getting to understand them better. . . . You have really arrived at a personal, purely logical, and deep — as well as beautiful way of saying things. . . . I’m not a critic and have difficulties expressing myself about poems — but I’m sure this book is very important — as they say all the time, of course — but really, as well.
He must have been thankful for — delighted by — the non-critic in her. To live with bafflement is itself to arrive at the personal because, for Ashbery, you are most truly yourself when you are put in touch with your disorientations. And, as Bishop wonderfully suggests, the personal is always the logical (whether it’s “logical” or not) because it is driven by compulsions that, in knowing no reason, are nonetheless felt as reasonable because they feel undeniable. Ashbery’s writing leads her on, in both senses of that phrase, for though she finds herself getting to understand it better (how much better this is than “understanding”), the to-ing and fro-ing of comprehension isn’t about to end. Trusting to the motion of such writing is like trusting to the part of yourself that doesn’t always need to justify — or even know — what your “life story” is.
In 1985, Ashbery chose the mesmerizing central section of Three Poems, “The System,” to stand at the center of his Selected Poems, and toward the end of that section we encounter a pragmatic yet provisional question. Or, rather, pragmatic becauseprovisional:
But now to have absorbed the lesson, to have recovered from the shock of not being able to remember it, to be again setting out from the beginning — is this not something good to you?