From The New York Times:
“My own autobiography has never interested me very much,” John Ashbery once told an interviewer. “Whenever I try to think about it, I seem to draw a complete blank.” Over the course of his long career as one of America’s most celebrated poets, Ashbery has fiercely defied a central premise of the lyric poetic tradition: that a poem should be a “song of myself,” an utterance that springs from the circumstances of the writer’s life and gives insight into the author’s mind and feelings. “I have always been averse to talking about myself and so I don’t write about my life the way the confessional poets do,” he has said. Instead, Ashbery aims to create “paradigms of common experience which I hope other people can share.” “What I am trying to get at is a general, all-purpose experience — like those stretch socks that fit all sizes,” he once explained. In the process, Ashbery has developed a radical, new kind of poetry, marked by ambiguous, shifting pronouns, a collage of different voices and styles, and a tantalizing elusiveness in which stable identity and closure are continually deferred.
Ashbery’s aversion to autobiographical revelation has often led critics to assume that his life story offers little help in understanding his challenging poetry. But it would seem the poet doth protest too much. Ashbery’s writing has always been suffused with nostalgia for the world of his childhood, meditations on the experience of growing up and moments of disguised autobiography. It’s just that the connections between his life and his poetry are, in his own words, “very close but oblique,” which makes him a particularly tricky subject for a literary biography.
This is the challenge that Karin Roffman, the author of “From the Modernist Annex,” gamely takes up in “The Songs We Know Best,” the first full-fledged biography of Ashbery, who has just turned 90. Readers hungry to learn about the full sweep of the poet’s long life will have to wait, though, as Roffman’s narrative only brings us up to the moment Ashbery’s career as a poet is about to begin. Her story comes to a halt just as the 27-year-old’s first book is chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Prize by one of his heroes, W. H. Auden.