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It’ s no secret that Ashbery had a life—it’ s there in “The Skaters ” (1966), with spots of time bubbling up to its surface; Flow Chart (1991), the hundred-page poem written into the vacancy left by his mother’ s death; “The History of My Life ” (1999), an elegy for his younger brother and a fairytale-neat childhood: “Once upon a time there were two brothers. ” But for every dispatch from his life, Ashbery’ s poetry provides hundreds of red herrings, set changes, inattentive wanderings away from self-absorption.
“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.
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.
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.
”Born in 1927, Ashbery arrived amid an absurdly prodigious and proliﬁc generation of American poets.
Already lodged into literary history, they’ re recently getting the full canonical-poet parade of publications: the last few years have brought us the collected poems of Denise Levertov, A. Ammons, Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, and Lucille Clifton; revised selections or last poems by Allen Ginsberg, W. Merwin, Philip Levine, and June Jordan; and authoritative biographies on two Jameses, Merrill and Wright.
” Roffman’ s readings never mean to “solve ” Ashbery, to ﬁll in art’ s variables with life’ s constants: they alert us, rather, to how much of life Ashbery cleared away, abstracted, or eluded.
”) Roffman’ s biography, for all its scrupulous research and strict chronology, is constantly made trippy by its subject, a young poet who never acts his age.
(Line them all up and you’ ll hear Ashbery’ s title anew: some trees went into printing these.) Among such phonebook-thick volumes, The Songs We Know Best is the odd one out—felicitously so.