Reviews — From the June 2017 issue

It Wants to Go to Bed with Us

John Ashbery’s well-spent youth

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Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927. His father, Chet, was a fruit farmer, and his mother, Helen, had been a biology teacher before she married. The family lived on the farm in the tiny village of Sodus, although during his early years Ashbery spent much of his time with his grandparents in neighboring Pultneyville. From an early age, Ashbery showed a strong aversion to the farmhouse and farm life — sources of pride for his father — which, Roffman points out, only fueled tensions in the family. In interviews he has noted that “my grandfather was a prominent physicist and also a very cultivated and completely self-made person”; he took an interest in his grandson’s education, “displacing my father,” “encouraging me to be whatever I wanted to be.” Chet had a violent temper; “he used to wallop me a great deal,” the poet has recalled, “often for no reason I could detect, so I always felt as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” Ashbery’s father once asked him whom he loved more, his father or his mother. “Mother, of course,” the boy shot back, before feeling ashamed of his answer. That a parent would even pose such a question — to a child not yet four years old — is what gives you pause. Some forty years later, when an interviewer suggested that his poetry was marked by both love and hatred of the experience of communication, Ashbery said, “We want to communicate and we hate the idea of being forced to. I think it’s something that should be noticed.” And poems, like people, want to be noticed without necessarily being put on the spot.

Controls, by John Ashbery © The artist. Courtesy the collection of John Ashbery. Used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt, Inc., for the author

In 1931, Ashbery’s brother, Richard, was born. Chet and Richard had similar personalities (“exuberant, outdoorsy, athletic”); Ashbery increasingly felt that his brother was a pest and he himself an outsider. Then, when the outsider was twelve years old, two things happened: He began to feel strong homosexual urges (he kept his desires secret, fearful that he was “the only one so afflicted”), and Richard died suddenly of leukemia. It was sudden, at least, for Ashbery. The full severity of Richard’s condition had been kept from him, and even the final outcome was relayed at two removes — his grandfather was left to tell him that his parents had just called with some bad news.

Excluded from his brother’s death and from the funeral (Chet and Helen arranged for him to be taken on a picnic), Ashbery perhaps had reason to feel both aggrieved and culpable. Nearly sixty years later, his poem “The History of My Life” began:

Once upon a time there were two brothers.
Then there was only one: myself.

Encountering a gap instead of an explanation, we are left to infer a tone — bereft, triumphant, blankly dissociative? — and to wonder whether the speaker imagines himself a latter-day Cain. Whatever he feels, he considers himself a brother even after he has ceased to be one. That missing brother remained somewhere in mind, if not always wholly in view. In his long, haunting poem “The Skaters,” Ashbery speaks of how his lines often leave “nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still.” This young man was never simply living his life; his mother and father “were now pinning all their hopes on me,” he said later. “Richard would probably have been straight, and married and had children, and not been the disappointment that I undoubtedly was to my parents.”

While Richard was dying, Ashbery was flying through eighth grade — and winning the district spelling bee (the only student with a perfect score). In the months following the death, though, even simple words presented stumbling blocks. His parents had sent him away to stay with relatives and he wrote home to say that he had purchased some new “songlasses.” Perhaps he needed protection from the glaring grief for the other son. Or perhaps the word swings the other way, into “song-lasses,” suggesting that this son, who was already being mocked at school for being a “sissy,” was nevertheless going to make his own music. Ashbery would become the poet for whom errata were desiderata (“error is plaited into desires not yet born,” he would write in “The Skaters”), the poet who stayed committed to making mistakes, sensing that at least mistakes were something you made. A couple of months after Richard’s death, he went to Syracuse to compete in the state spelling bee; he was asked to spell desperately, but was out of the competition almost as soon as he opened his mouth: “D-E-S-P-A —” Excluding its cognates, only one common word in English begins with those letters; you might say the boy had taken desperate measures to express his own despair.

The death of the brother also led to the birth of the writer: A few months after Richard died, Ashbery’s mother bought him his first diary. Roffman quotes liberally from this to create a vivid picture of the young man’s developing sensibility and sexuality. “Doing nothing vigorously,” he wrote one evening, which nicely captures his manner on and off the page. (“Lazy and quick,” the painter Fairfield Porter would later say of him.) Ashbery’s teenage years were spent staving off the loneliness and boredom of village life by inventing imaginary kingdoms and cultivating a passion for reading, music, and art. (He’d first wanted to become a painter, and later made a living as an art critic for twenty-five years.) He won a spot on the national radio show Quiz Kids and was later awarded a prize in Time magazine’s high school essay competition on current affairs.

On the question of the perceived “difficulty” of his poetry, Ashbery has said that when you talk to other people they eventually lose interest, but when you talk to yourself, they want to listen in. His first experience of this curious situation came, I think, when he discovered that his mother was secretly reading his diary. To thwart her, he developed a new kind of language in which to write about his feelings.

As the first anniversary of Richard’s death approached, Ashbery and a male friend shared a bed, hugged, kissed, and fondled each other. A few days later, his diary entry is veiled, subliminal, suggestible:

tulip garden
  old dutch
     home all our own until
     recall once more
             fashion in shows
          dog cast in
                  days before
were almost learning to forget
happy                    fear came from
                                                 a trough
            kin

Roffman calls this Ashbery’s “first original modernist poem.” One senses the influence of surrealism too; a few years earlier he’d been fascinated by an article in Life on Fantastic Art: Dadaism and Surrealism, an exhibition that had opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Surrealist writers and artists would remain important to him. (He first read Rimbaud, for example, when he was sixteen, and published a beautiful translation of his Illuminations nearly seventy years later.) Here, in this proto-poem, the welter of objects both seductive and unyielding (from “tulip” to “trough”); the blend of Edenic bliss (“garden,” “home all our own”) and whimsical, postlapsarian knowledge (almost learning to forget); the tangled feelings (what makes you “happy” needn’t be all that far from what you “fear”); the possible intertwining of different senses of “kin” and kinship (familial, sexual) — all have the makings of a particular style and outlook.

Ashbery would later describe some of his poems as diaries; Flow Chart (1991) was composed over a seven-month period, beginning soon after the death of his mother and ending on July 28, 1988. (The final section of the poem is even dated on the original typescript — the sixty-first anniversary of the day his mother became a mother: his birthday.) “I free-associate,” Ashbery has said, “and come up with all kinds of material that doesn’t belong — but does.” For a person who grew up around what he called “the majority who disapprove,” free association — and the freedom to make associations — becomes both protection and defiance. It’s a dream of inclusion and acceptance too; talking about material that “doesn’t belong — but does,” Ashbery is also talking about himself.

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teaches English at Keble College, Oxford. He is finishing a book entitled Wordsworth’s Fun. His article “Supping on Horrors” appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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