Ashbery had a gift for generosity, comedy and simplicity.by Jeremy Noel-Tod / March 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.” These words, which begin John Ashbery’s most celebrated volume, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), were extensively quoted on social media when the poet died last autumn at the age of 90. It was not an untimely death, but the news still felt like a shiver in the natural order. Regularly described as “America’s greatest living poet,” Ashbery himself seemed to be one of the immortal things, who would defy death with his infinite jest. “Time, you old miscreant!” began a poem published when he was 75, “Slain any brontosauruses lately?”
For all the rakish insouciance of such lines, the deep appeal of Ashbery’s voice was always its I-have-foresuffered-all sagacity. “We see us as we truly behave,” begins his first book, Some Trees (1956), establishing the 29-year-old poet’s bardic willingness to speak for the one and many, like Walt Whitman before him. Venturing further, the reader encounters inexplicably gnomic images, haunted by meaning, such as “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”
The volume was published with an introduction by Ashbery’s poetic hero, WH Auden, who acknowledged its strangeness with the observation: “From Rimbaud down to Mr Ashbery, an important school of modern poets has been concerned with the discovery that, in childhood largely, in dreams and daydreams entirely, the imaginative life of the human individual stubbornly continues to live by the old magical notions.” Auden was, in effect, presenting Ashbery as a young surrealist. But he was also noting that there is a sympathy in these poems with the everyday magical thinking that creates meaning in our lives.
Karin Rofmann’s The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life is the first biography of the poet. Written with Ashbery’s support, it gives a fascinatingly detailed account of a childhood that was shadowed by loneliness and melancholy.
Born in Rochester, New York in 1927, Ashbery grew up on his parents’ fruit farm in Sodus, near Lake Ontario. He was never happy near his father, however, who had a violent temper, and preferred city life at his maternal grandparents’ house in Rochester, where his imagination fed on their Victorian bric-a-brac and illustrated children’s encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge. (In 1941, he briefly became a local celebrity after appearing on the national radio show, Quiz Kids.)