Reviews — From the June 2017 issue

It Wants to Go to Bed with Us

John Ashbery’s well-spent youth

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Roffman sticks close to her subject. Three times on the first page she is willing to tell us what he “felt,” and she tends to refer to “John” rather than to “Ashbery” when relating what he experienced, as opposed to what he wrote. Her detective work is nonetheless assiduous (she’s tracked down manuscripts, report cards, his first boyfriend, and much else besides); she’s even found proof that his father did in fact know he was gay. (Ashbery hadn’t been sure.) Nearly every page of The Songs We Know Best contains new material for which to be grateful. The latter half, in particular, becomes the story of how the poet went inside his feelings of being on the outside, and became assured enough to be unsure.

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

Thanks to the kind offices of a neighbor, Ashbery was sent to Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts (“a sort of jock, upper-class WASP school,” he recalls, “which I didn’t fit into at all”). Classmates looked down on the poor scholarship boy, taunting him with rumors about his sexuality. One response to the predicament of being surrounded by unreachable people is to become the unreadable person, which perhaps helps to account for the strange blend of coolness and shyness in Ashbery’s early work, the sense of writing intent on going its own way even while it remains on the lookout for potential collaborators (or co-conspirators). In “The Thinnest Shadow”:

A face looks from the mirror
As if to say,
“Be supple, young man,
Since you can’t be gay.”

Ashbery’s arrival at Harvard in 1945 drastically altered his sense of what he could and could not be. (“I don’t give a healthy damn,” he wrote, “been living rather dangerously of late . . . feel saturated with vice.”) His other passions — the movies, modern music, painting — were also given more space to breathe, and he grew close to Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, both of whom were brilliant, enthusiastic readers of their friend’s work.

When O’Hara pronounced Ashbery’s debut collection, Some Trees (1956), “the finest first book in America to appear since Harmonium,” he was acknowledging his friend’s debt to Wallace Stevens as well as signaling the arrival of a rare talent. The collection is influenced by other poets too — Ashbery has himself spoken of the importance of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and, of course, W. H. Auden, who selected Some Trees for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956.

But you also hear a new voice that sounds unlike any other. The opening words of the first five poems in the collection — “We see us,” “He continued to,” “Slowly all your,” “As I sit looking out,” “Of who we are and all they are / You all now know” — highlight the knowingly unknowing play of pronoun and identity that is one of the signatures of that voice. A paradigmatic Ashbery utterance, Koch ventured, would be something like: “It wants to go to bed with us.” “It,” not “I”; “us,” not “you”; O’Hara hinted at a similar mixture of the desirous and the impersonal when he observed that Ashbery “is always marrying the whole world,” which nicely raises the question of whether he’s the priest or half of the couple — and, indeed, whether the union is meant to last (always marrying?). The title poem of that first collection looks ahead to the rueful ecstasies of the later work, its coalescences of intimacy and estrangement. It was “definitely written about somebody I was in love with,” Ashbery has indefinitively observed.

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing?
With it, you and I?
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:?
That their merely being there?
Means something; that soon?
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented?
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:?
A silence already filled with noises,?
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.?
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,?
Our days put on such reticence?
These accents seem their own defense

Ashbery has long been the singer of the present as it slips away into lost past or unrealized future, but he is also an apprehender of the here and now as both bequest and promise. (The here includes everything that brought us here; the now is a portent of the not-quite-yet.) Surrounded by enthralled, instantaneous jolts — “These are amazing,” “this morning,” “These accents” — we wonder at first why the trees are “there,” not “here.” (In the first draft Ashbery had plumped for the more predictable “here.”) And yet “there” is right: the trees stand realized but at a remove; they mean but they mean only “something,” as near and as far from him as anything else he loves. In the concluding talk of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard (published as Other Traditions in 2000), Ashbery quoted these lines by David Schubert:

But the poem is just this
Speaking of what cannot be said
To the person I want to say it.

“A magnificent definition,” Ashbery added, “not only of Schubert’s poetry but of poetry itself.” The “accents” of “Some Trees” may be those on the canvas the poet has helped to paint, or of the words he wishes could be said; either way, rarely has defense felt so lacking in defensiveness, or reticence so responsive. “Soon / We may touch, love, explain.” Yes: soon . . . may.

In keeping with her subject’s attraction to imminence, and with his love of the aleatory and serendipitous (“arranging by chance”), Roffman’s book ends in 1955, on the eve of the publication of Some Trees, with the twenty-eight-year-old poet about to board ship for France. (He was originally meant to be there for one year as a Fulbright scholar, but stayed a decade.) The life he had begun at Harvard, the one he’d extended when he moved to New York after graduating in 1949, appears to be as full as any “early” life could get: composing and acting in plays, taking part in a short film, working on a novel with James Schuyler, collaborating with artists, publishing translations of French writers, writing more poems, traveling to Mexico, holding down various jobs — the list could go on. But Ashbery wasn’t standing still, and there were other parts of the world he wanted to marry. On the first page of his most famous poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” he speaks of “a recurring wave / Of arrival.” The phrase sums up his relish for the teeming and the transient, with a “wave” signifying a greeting, a valediction, and a repeated shape or rhythm. At the end of The Songs We Know Best, we conceive of him just as he so often conceives of and waves to himself: rooted, and en route.

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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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