(All of the above convened in East Hampton to gripe, collaborate on sestinas, and ﬁlm a version of Schuyler’ s short play Presenting Jane (1953)—less New York School than New York Summer Camp.) The deus ex machina of Ashbery’ s early life, and Roffman’ s biography, is W. Auden, who intersected with Ashbery’ s twenties with a preposterous frequency.The titanic poet of the post-modernist (and pre-Ashbery) generation, Auden at ﬁrst seems untouchably distant: a chapter later he’ s a near-miss hookup after a Harvard Advocate event, then the subject of Ashbery’ s scraped-together BA thesis; a few years later, he’ s the contest judge awarding the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize to Ashbery’ s debut Some Trees (1956), choosing its title and cutting poems with words deemed unpoetically obscene (“masturbation, ” “farting ”).The dorm-room epiphany of “Some Trees, ” she explains, “ﬁnally expressed the combination of experience and transcendence he had been attempting to communicate for many years, ” managing the feat “without including any speciﬁc details about his life.”Born in 1927, Ashbery arrived amid an absurdly prodigious and proliﬁc generation of American poets.With “Some Trees, ” for instance, Roffman triangulates contexts: a frustrated ﬂirtation with a fellow Advocate staffer; a newfound fondness for Marianne Moore’ s poetry, which kept passions in syllabic check; and the many resonances trees held for Ashbery: for starters, “summers in Pultneyville, castles, climbing willow branches, Robin Hood, his boyish and fragile brother.
All of which is to say that Roffman stays true to her subject, who is photographed on her last page during the ﬁrst days of his Fulbright in France—caught midstride, he looks directionless but hopeful, oblivious of the work of the next day, let alone the next uncharted decades. Here’ s what we know: some event, referred to in as an “attack from above ” (from the sky, or by some elite—we don’ t know), led to a collapse in public infrastructure. ” The crisis going on in the wake of this event is environmental, perhaps ecological.(“None of us ever graduates from college, ” Ashbery would write in “Soonest Mended, ” which he deemed his “one-size-ﬁts-all ” confessional poem.“For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up / Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.As self-defense and self-distraction, the young Ashbery turned to playwriting, art history, technicolor spectacle, and overblown crushes; he fostered a competitive sense of bookishness that just about made him a quizbowl child star.(His record was imperfect, tragicomically: at the New York state spelling bee, the thirteen-year-old Ashbery spelled as far as D-E-S-P-A, realized his error, and was knocked out on “desperately.“And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name, ” from Houseboat Days (1977), ﬂings confessionalism down with a splat—self-indulging for a few whiny lines, Ashbery moves on: So much for self-analysis.Now, About what to put in your poem-painting: Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.Collaborating with both Ashbery the septa-then-octogenarian and Ashbery the teenager, Roffman stitches together interviews with the former and the latter’ s diaries, totaling over a thousand pages, offering a meticulous (though often enciphered) accounting of ages thirteen through sixteen.(These, presumably, are the very diaries Ashbery remembered in a 2009 interview as “so boring! I obviously wasn’ t doing anything of much interest.That virtue enriches the ﬁrst chapters of The Songs We Know Best, on Ashbery’ s roots and childhood in upstate New York, divided between the family farm in Sodus and his grandparents’ house in Pultneyville.For all the golden-hour nostalgia and endearing antiques within Ashbery’ s poetry, his childhood played out over a room tone of sadness:a father’ s disregard, a younger brother’ s unmentionable death, a small town and small minds inhospitable to this gay, ambitious, spacey, irrepressibly odd boy.