The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life
By Karin Roffman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
336 pages, $30
In a small market like postmodern poetry it’s not enough to be smart, well-read and determined. You need luck too.
John Ashbery got lucky three times.
First, the daughter of George Eastman’s lawyer plucked him out of high school in Sodus, near Rochester and sent him to Deerfield Academy, one of the great boarding schools in America. Its crusty, old headmaster, Frank Boydon, got him into Harvard. But even that wasn’t enough.
Ashbery moved to New York City and bounced around Greenwich Village, making friends in the art scene. But approaching 30, he regarded himself as a failure. He had applied for a Fulbright Scholarship several times without success. He submitted a manuscript to the Yale Younger Poets series and was rejected. Friends like Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara were doing much better. It looked grim for the young man. He needed to find an audience but walking the fine line between the prosaic nature of poetry and the poetic nature of prose made it difficult.
W.H. Auden decided not to select a Yale Younger Poet that year. Ashbery’s manuscript had not reached the final competition because it was judged too short. Auden learned that he wouldn’t get part of his fee if he didn’t select a manuscript so he had them send more. He reluctantly chose Ashbery’s
Flush with this news, Ashbery went to Mexico to celebrate. On his return he found out someone had given up his Fulbright Scholarship and he was next in line. With a published book in hand, he went to Paris and the rest is history.
That’s as far as this book goes but it leaves us with enough insight to enjoy Ashbery's whimsical and mysterious poems.
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.
Ashbery was not happy living on a fruit farm near Lake Ontario. He spent as much time as he could in Rochester taking art classes and developing an interest in surrealism.
His younger brother died of leukemia and the family grieved in silence. As an outlet Ashbery began a diary. Knowing his mother read his entries, he hid his feelings in code, often in Latin. The repetitive nature of his entries bored him so he “gave wit and wisdom to the fact of repetition.” He also discovered "happy accidents" or mistaken words were a way to discover new levels of meaning in writing as well as in painting. Finding as much ecstasy in the imperfect word as he did in the perfect one, he mixed “highly literary and colloquial language for humorous effect.”
At Deerfield he continued to paint and read new writers like the Imagists and Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein. They helped him find a voice that was “both emotional and whimsical” that “wavered between remorse and pain.”
He had his first poems published in “Poetry Magazine” in the most bizarre way possible. His roommate spread rumors that Ashbery was gay and at the same time wanted to be him. He submitted some of Ashbery’s poems to “Poetry Magazine” and they were published under a pseudonym. A few years later, Ashbery picked up a copy of that “Poetry Magazine.” He confronted his former roommate and demanded to be identified as the author. For some reason he remained friends with this roommate from hell.
By then the poems of Wallace Stevens, the novels of Proust and the music of Berg were exerting a strong influence on his writing. In an essay written at Harvard he described “that magical, suggestive land where all great poems take place [where] we are released from the things of the world to find a new significance in the world of the imagination.”
On his first trip to New York City he realized he was “a born New Yorker.” He made many friends, the most important of whom was Frank O’Hara. He thought of him as his twin. He admired O’Hara’s “radiant magnetism" which drew people together … his attitude that "being an artist" was "the most natural thing in the world."
He also collaborated with a poet from East Aurora, James Schuyler, making collages and writing a novel called “A Nest of Ninnies.”
He discovered how great “Old Walt,” that other city poet, was. He had Whitman’s “long prose-y lines of poetry in mind” as he wrote “The Instruction Manual,” the longest poem he had ever written. He included it at the last minute in his Yale Younger Poets publication.
Auden wrote a less than enthusiastic introduction but Ashbery took it as a challenge to write poetry that might please even the master. But no longer feeling the pressure to prove himself by writing a boring instruction manual he set out alone. He was twenty-eight and going to Paris. It was 1955. He’s still going.
William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry pages and a poet and critic now living and writing in Florida.