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Following his ﬁrst, seminal gay experience, Ashbery opened his diary and strewed unpunctuated, clipped-short phrases across a page: as Roffman realizes, they were encoded notations “in a form that would render its importance legible and memorable for him ” but closed off to others, as well as “John’ s ﬁrst original modernist poem, ” years before modernism found its way to Sodus: At Harvard, Ashbery trained himself to stage that privacy in the open, in poetry that (for now, at least) strung that diaristic shorthand into bewitching verse.The title poem of Some Trees (dashed off in an hour, in pencil, at his dorm-room desk) ﬁnds congenial ﬁgures for intimacy in trees’ silent, digniﬁed proximity—“These are amazing: each / Joining a neighbor, as if speech / Were a still performance ”—and ends in “defense ” of a love that evolves, never entirely articulated, less into PDA than affection’ s telling “accents ”: “Placed in a puzzling light, and moving, / Our days put on such reticence / These accents seem their own defense.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.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.In 1971, Phone Mate introduced one of the first commercially viable answering machines, the Model 400.It weighed 10 pounds and held 20 messages on a reel-to-reel tape.
If you think you can do better, then leave your own ideas on the bottom of this page.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.Names of boys you once knew and their sleds, Skyrockets are good—do they still exist?One Ashberian virtue of Roffman’ s biography is its doting preservation of those boys’ names, sleds, skyrockets, of apparently everything minor, dated, otherwise discarded.
In large part, The Songs We Know Best narrates the development of John Ashbery the poet—as odd, as temporality-shufﬂing a story as any in this book.