The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life 
by Karin Roffman.
Farrar, Straus, 316 pp., £25.50, June 2017, 978 0 374 29384 0
Show More
Show More

Karin Roffman​ ’s superb biography of John Ashbery’s early life concludes with a photograph of the poet striding towards the camera. He is a tallish, handsome young man. The photograph was taken in the autumn of 1955 when he was 28, shortly after he arrived in Montpellier to begin his Fulbright Fellowship. He looks to have the world at his feet.

Earlier that year Ashbery had been turned down by the Fulbright committee for the fifth time. This greatly disappointed him: he was desperate to travel – he had ‘not been literally anywhere’ – and was stuck in a dreary job as a copywriter at the publishing house McGraw-Hill. The manuscript he had submitted for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize had been rejected. The judge was Auden, the contemporary poet whose work meant the most to Ashbery and who for the second year in a row felt he couldn’t ‘pick a “publishable manuscript”’. Ashbery’s painter friend Jane Freilicher, sensing his despondency, invited him to join her and Grace Hartigan and their boyfriends on a trip to Mexico. The landscape and new palette of colours thrilled him. On his return to New York three weeks later he learned that the Fulbright committee had reversed its decision and that Auden had finally chosen his manuscript for the Yale prize. ‘Having left New York City with a long future of dull office work stretching out ahead of him, John felt it was nearly a miracle to return three weeks later to a book contract and a steamer ticket to France.’

It must be strange for a writer, or almost anyone apart from movie stars, sports heroes or heads of state, to have a biography written about them during their lifetime. This one appeared a couple of months before Ashbery’s death, at the age of 90, on 3 September. In fact, he was actively complicit in the choice of biographer and the assembling of the book. He invited Karin Roffman to his home in Hudson, New York, not far from Bard College, where they both taught. It was 2005; Ashbery was 78. Roffman had been expecting ‘a mid-century-modern glass cube and found instead a large, gloomy-looking 19th-century Victorian manse’ filled with a curious array of bric-à-brac, much of which had come from Ashbery’s parents’ farm or his maternal grandparents. Roffman made a number of visits to the house and spent an entire summer there cataloguing objects before she proposed to Ashbery that she write a biography of his early life. ‘Ashbery responded that he assumed I already was.’

If you ever spent any time around John Ashbery, or even observed him from a distance, perhaps at a reading, the last place you’d imagine him to be from would be an apple and cherry farm in western New York State, hard by the shores of Lake Ontario. He was rather patrician in bearing and had beautiful manners, soft-spoken, with a droll, sometimes wicked sense of humour: he would seem at home at all the vernissages and salons of Manhattan or the consulates and cultural centres of any European capital. I always found him among the most entertaining and delightful of companions. But a farmer’s son? It’s hard to imagine anything more incongruous.

I’m always fascinated by the succession of fortuities that determine the lives and careers of major artists and how easily their achievements might never have happened. Ashbery’s parents were unremarkable, if you leave aside his father’s unpredictable, foul temper. But his maternal grandfather, Henry Lawrence, was indeed a remarkable man, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester, who had written his PhD on the new field of X-ray technology. He was also fluent in Greek and Latin and a good businessman. After his grandfather’s death Ashbery told an interviewer that Henry Lawrence was the only person he had ever unconditionally loved.

Because there was no kindergarten in the village, Ashbery went to live with his grandparents in Rochester and went to the local elementary school. Their house was large and Victorian, and filled with books and keepsakes, much like the house in Hudson that Roffman describes. This was no accident. Ashbery’s happiest early memories were of his grandparents’ houses. Their vacation home in Pultneyville, looking out onto Lake Ontario, was the setting for many of Ashbery’s childhood summers. It was his favourite place and remained so in his imagination. Whenever he could he spent weekends with his grandparents, often to his father’s annoyance. He liked the smell of his grandfather’s pipe and, even before he could read them, the feel and presence of the many books on the shelves.

Ashbery’s father was a vigorous man who had been a semi-pro baseball player. His son hated sport and physical exertion of any kind, particularly farmwork. Once he had learned to read with his grandparents, he wanted to do little else but lie in bed with a book. Later he would go to art classes in Rochester, play the piano a bit, and put on plays with friends for a small audience of adults at the summerhouse on the lake. He always dreaded returning to the family farm, where there were no books and few children to play with. His younger brother, Richard, was a chip off the old block – ‘exuberant, outdoorsy, athletic’, everything John was not – and his father’s favourite. Richard died of leukaemia shortly before John turned 13 in 1940. A shadow descended on the family. After being told of his brother’s death, Ashbery was spotted by a family friend in his grandfather’s vegetable garden ‘in his shorts and shirt, knocking the rolled-up comic book he had brought for Richard against one hand and wandering around alone’. His brother’s death haunted Ashbery for the rest of his life, finding its way into the poetry, obliquely or disguised, which was the way Ashbery treated personal or emotional material. Seamus Heaney, who mistrusted and disliked Ashbery’s poetry, wrote of it rather caustically as ‘a centrally heated daydream … sorrowful [because] it knows that it’s inadequate’.

Heaney wasn’t alone in mistrusting Ashbery’s poetic enterprise. ‘It is the personal,/interior life that gives us something to think about,’ Ashbery wrote. ‘The rest is only drama.’ Heaney, Ashbery’s only equal in reputation among English-language poets of the later 20th and early 21st centuries, chose to look outwards, in pursuit of the ‘heft’ of the world around him. Ashbery’s poetry can seem chilly and forbidding, unserious, even a bit louche. The prodigious, Browningesque output (almost never revised), the evenness in method and tone (offhand and affectless) do nothing to discourage that notion. But Roffman’s biography succeeds in linking the events of the poet’s life with the poems, rendering them a good deal more emotionally charged, more human, than they at first seem.

Not long after Richard’s death, Ashbery went to Sibley’s department store, which sponsored the preliminary local round of the nationally syndicated Quiz Kids radio show, and picked up an application to fill out. He was hoping to impress a girl in his class called Frances Grant, who remained unmoved by his attentions. The application involved writing a 250-word essay on ‘Why I Should Be a Quiz Kid’. His entry was judged ‘excellent’, and earned him a trip to Chicago to take part in the final. Two days before it was due to take place, on 7 December 1940, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Ashbery wondered whether the show would be cancelled, but on 9 December he boarded a train at Rochester’s Union Station with his mother and grandmother. Family friends there to see him off bought him a copy of the New Yorker and a Fritzi Ritz comic book. ‘Oh! Boy what fun to have the wind outside,’ John wrote later that evening in his diary. ‘Momma and I went down to the lounge and I read my New Yorker. I feel quite distingué with it under my arm. We came back and I undressed and am now in bed. The train sways quite a lot and I keep thinking its [sic] going to tip over. Very good night.’

John didn’t win the quiz but he had the time of his life: his first ever taxi ride, a stay at the vast and luxurious Palmer House hotel with its arched ceiling and statuary in the alcoves. John, Momma and Grandma stayed on the 18th floor. ‘Very nice,’ he recorded in his diary. He returned a celebrity, but, more than a year after his brother’s death, he found himself still grieving. Roffman quotes a poem, ‘The History of My Life’, that Ashbery wrote sixty years later:

Once upon a time there were two brothers.
Then there was only one: myself.
I grew up fast, before learning to drive,
Even. There was I: a stinking adult.
I thought of developing interests
someone might take an interest in. No soap.
I became very weepy for what had seemed
like the pleasant early years. As I aged
increasingly, I also grew more charitable
with regard to my thoughts and ideas,
thinking them at least as good as the next man’s.
Then a devouring cloud
came and loitered on the horizon, drinking
it up, for what seemed like months or years.

Roffman describes ‘the pleasant early years’ as ‘an earnest phrase tinged with the ironies amassed through time – “months or years” – and through the mists of memory, age and alcohol’. Ashbery can often surprise us with an unexpected starkness of emotion.

Shortly after his brother’s death their mother bought him a leather-bound diary for Christmas. She felt it might be a good way for him to express his feelings and hoped she’d be able to sneak a peek every now and then to get a sense of how the boy was doing. Ashbery wasn’t much excited by the gift at first. His first entries were jokey, but gradually he became interested in recording some of the details of his life, which he found hopelessly boring: the weather, what he ate, school. Soon he was at the library reading Pepys and bringing a copy home. His infatuation with Frances Grant got him going, in dog Latin: ‘Scis pulchra puella – amor Frances Grant.’

On one summer afternoon in Hudson, Roffman asked Ashbery if he had kept a diary during his childhood. He presented her with four leather-bound volumes, a thousand pages in all, which he had kept between the ages of 13 and 16. In 1980, he had shown the diaries to a psychoanalyst he was seeing. The doctor died unexpectedly and the diaries disappeared, only to be recovered 15 years later by a stranger who found them in a collection of papers he bought at an estate sale. He found Ashbery’s address and returned them. They were a treasure trove for Roffman. Then, several weeks later, she found a box marked ‘Private’ on a shelf in Ashbery’s downstairs sitting room which turned out to contain typewritten drafts of nearly all his adolescent writings: poetry, stories, plays. Thinking he had burned all this decades before, Ashbery was flabbergasted. Roffman was thrilled. It was all coming together.

Fortuities: in 1943, when Ashbery was 15, Margaret Hubbell Wells, a neighbour and family friend, wrote to Frank Boyden, the headmaster of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, a legendary figure in 20th-century American secondary education. Wells’s two older sons had attended Deerfield and she had been impressed by Ashbery’s bravura showing on Quiz Kids:

Do you ever offer scholarships to boys who are fine students – really Brilliant – yet do not meet the qualifications of well-rounded boys? I would be so glad to gamble five hundred dollars on a boy by the name of John Ashbery, if you would be willing to have him at Deerfield for one year (1943-44) with the promise that you would keep him for one more year – gratis – if you thought he were worth it.

She added that Ashbery’s mother was ‘a saint’ and that his father was a ‘moderately successful farmer’ with no schooling through high school, and that neither could provide their son with an education that matched his intellectual needs.

Boyden wrote back offering Ashbery an interview and, if he was suitably impressed, a large scholarship. At the end of the Easter vacation, Ashbery found himself driving with his father and grandfather the three hundred miles to Deerfield. He was terrified by the notion of going to school there. Henry Lawrence wrote to Boyden after the visit:

About John. He is very dependable. He is somewhat shy but has faith in himself without conceit. He has unusual capacity for amusing himself but enjoys social contact: if left to himself he would take to your school library which, I must confess, I found very attractive. He has large intellectual curiosity, enjoys music and dramatics.

He is clumsy at boy games; his shyness has kept him from getting interested in sports … He has a remarkable memory and takes naturally to study. I am sure you will like him.

In September, Ashbery found himself, with more than some anxiety, surrounded by some of the brightest and most privileged boys in the country.

Earlier​ in the year, Ashbery had had a sexual encounter with a sailor in the bathroom of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester that left him overwhelmed and totally infatuated, only to be spurned, which devastated him. He had previously had a couple of more innocent and tentative encounters with boys, but nothing of this magnitude. ‘I didn’t know what to do, what I was supposed to do,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘John lost track of time,’ Roffman writes, ‘and suddenly heard his grandfather, who had been waiting in the car, enter the bathroom in search of him. John exited the stall and went home in a daze, his emotions such a volatile mixture of excitement and longing that he could hardly think.’

It was around this time that Ashbery began writing poetry in earnest. He had written an impressively precocious poem eight years earlier after his grandparents took him to see the film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. Ashbery, who would be captivated by film throughout his life, was transported by the combination of Shakespeare’s language and Mendelssohn’s music. When he arrived back at his grandparents’ house he immediately went upstairs and composed a lengthy poem that he called ‘The Battle’:

The trees are bent with their glittering load,
The bushes are covered and so is the road.
The fairies are riding upon their snowflakes,
And the tall haystacks are great sugar mounds.
These are the fairies camping grounds …

It goes on for another five stanzas, ending with a cleverly ironic twist. His aunt Jane sent the poem to her cousin Elizabeth Sherwood Rinehart, who passed it to her mother-in-law, Mary Roberts Rinehart, a popular mystery writer. Ashbery was told his poem had received ‘great acclaim’. Having thus conquered the realm of poetry, for the next few years he turned his attention to drawing and prose. But around the time Margaret Hubbell Wells recommended him to Deerfield, Ashbery had started to read Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, as well as Amy Lowell and H.D.’s Imagist poems, which he found in Louis Untermeyer’s thick volume, Modern American Poetry, Modern British Poetry: A Critical Anthology (1942). He began writing Imagist poems in earnest:

You came
To me like vines
Reaching up to strangle
An abandoned house with quiet

After a bumpy start at Deerfield (‘I wish I was home,’ he wrote in his diary after his fourth day), he found his way to the school’s art studio and settled right in. The academic work initially overwhelmed him, and he detested the daily and compulsory sports practices. Rumours began circulating that he was homosexual and he was persecuted for it. The source of the rumour was one of his classmates, Bill Haddock, a member of the Art Club who was also interested in modern poetry. Haddock secretly submitted handwritten copies, under his own name, of a handful of Ashbery’s poems – which he had read at the ‘special poetry class’ Boyden held for the best students – to Deerfield’s ‘resident writer’, a not very able poet called David Morton, who was so impressed that he sent them to Poetry magazine, which accepted two of them. The poems appeared in the November 1945 issue. Ashbery was distracted from noticing their publication by the fear he would be expelled for homosexuality, but he ‘graduated without incident’, after winning the French prize, ‘which he clinched by delivering an oral presentation in which he analysed each classmate’s personality by the necktie he wore’. Boyden wrote urging Harvard to admit Ashbery, which it did in July 1945. Haddock followed him there and an erratum finally appeared acknowledging another of his thefts: ‘The poem “Dark River” which appeared in the summer issue of Voices, was written by Mr John Ashburg [sic] of Sodus, New York, and not by Mr William C. Haddock.’

Ashbery​ flourished at Harvard, where his brilliance was immediately acknowledged. He was now, even more than at Deerfield, among his intellectual peers. He was made a ‘literary associate’ on the Harvard Advocate, appearing on the masthead in the Christmas issue. He was invited to join the Signet Society, ‘an exclusive undergraduate art and literary society with its own yellow building at 46 Dunster Street’. It was there he met Kenneth Koch, and the two got on famously, as they would for the next fifty years. Ashbery was asked to read at the Widener Library Poetry Room, where he was already a near permanent presence. He listened to lots of music on the Victrola he bought for his dorm room: Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat and his Octet for Winds, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, Walton’s Sinfonia Concertante and Berg’s Violin Concerto, which he felt taught him something about poetry. He wrote plays. He found a circle of homosexual friends. He studied the Metaphysical poets with Douglas Bush, 20th-century poetry with F.O. Matthiessen, and attended Harry Levin’s lecture course on Proust, Joyce and Mann. He wrote a number of poems that would later be included in his Yale Younger Poets collection, Some Trees. He wrote a send-up of Robert Lowell, whose poetry he couldn’t stand: ‘Mudgulping trawler, Truro in the ooze/Past Peach’s Point, with tray of copper spoons/For Salem’s Mayor Caldecott to suck,/ For his doll’s calico corpse, red-needled in the book’. He discovered Wallace Stevens’s poetry and went to hear him when he gave a rare public reading at Harvard; Ashbery, sitting captivated in the front row, was surprised when Stevens ‘stood like a statue and wore an overcoat and scarf the entire time’, and spoke so quietly as to be all but inaudible beyond the first few rows. He became infatuated with the poetry of Marianne Moore. Late in his senior year Ashbery

‘heard someone with a voice that sounded like his own’. That flat nasal voice expressed a preference for Poulenc over Wagner … John heard ‘what seemed like’ his own voice speaking his own thought. Even more powerfully, he heard someone sharing his penchant for saying exactly the opposite of prevailing opinion, regardless of the precise truth of the comment.

Ashbery wrote to his friend Bob Hunter that ‘I made many good friends as the term began to end, the greatest of these being Frank O’Hara … O’Hara I suspect of being my identical twin: I saw much of him the last few weeks.’ Ashbery had enjoyed all Harvard had to offer. He was now ready to take on New York.

The Songs We Know Best begins near midnight on Labor Day weekend in 1949. Ashbery is throwing his first party since moving to New York City in his small, basement sublet in Greenwich Village. He has invited everyone he has met and liked or hoped to meet since moving to the city, about seventy people. The guest of honour is O’Hara, who hits it off straight away with Jane Freilicher, one of the first people Ashbery met in New York and now his closest friend. It pleases Ashbery greatly that they’re getting on. He loves them both. He hasn’t written a poem since he moved to the city but he’s painting a fair bit, abstracts, after not having touched a paintbrush since high school. He probably hasn’t had the time for poetry – he’s moved apartments three times, has a full-time job at the Brooklyn Library, and is applying to graduate school. He’s also drinking heavily, hitting every bar up and down Eighth Street. The party goes well; it’s not as grand an event as the Robert Motherwell party in Provincetown a few weeks before, but a large success. He’s pleased about this and pleased to be in New York City, where he has always wanted to live. New York is clearly the place to be an artist at this moment in time, of this he is convinced. The night ends with John and Frank in the twin bed, ‘intimate but never romantic’. ‘In the agreeably dark and cool underground room, still delightfully buzzed from the evening’s frivolities, they go to sleep.’

The book ends with a scene in Ashbery’s cabin on the ocean liner that took him to France in 1955. His parents and grandmother, who insisted on driving him down, are there. Freilicher is the first guest to arrive, followed by O’Hara, Jimmy Schuyler and a handful of others. A bottle of champagne is opened and the group toasts John. Later, after they’re all gone and the ship has begun its voyage, Ashbery wanders onto deck and looks out at the sea, the view reminding him of Lake Ontario. Roffman quotes a passage from his 1972 collection, Three Poems: ‘I’m sorry – in staring too long over this elaborate view one begins to forget that one is looking inside, taking in the familiar interior which has always been there, reciting the only alphabet one knows.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences