ABA Mobile Menu
The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life (Paperback)
The first biography of an American master
The Songs We Know Best, the first comprehensive biography of the early life of John Ashbery—the winner of nearly every major American literary award—reveals the unusual ways he drew on the details of his youth to populate the poems that made him one of the most original and unpredictable forces of the last century in arts and letters.
Drawing on unpublished correspondence, juvenilia, and childhood diaries as well as more than one hundred hours of conversation with the poet, Karin Roffman offers an insightful portrayal of Ashbery during the twenty-eight years that led up to his stunning debut, Some Trees, chosen by W. H. Auden for the 1955 Yale Younger Poets Prize. Roffman shows how Ashbery’s poetry arose from his early lessons both on the family farm and in 1950s New York City—a bohemian existence that teemed with artistic fervor and radical innovations inspired by Dada and surrealism as well as lifelong friendships with painters and writers such as Frank O’Hara, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Willem de Kooning.
Ashbery has a reputation for being enigmatic and playfully elusive, but Roffman’s biography reveals his deft mining of his early life for the flint and tinder from which his provocative later poems grew, producing a body of work that he calls “the experience of experience,” an intertwining of life and art in extraordinarily intimate ways.
About the Author
Karin Roffman has taught literature at Yale, West Point, and Bard, and is the author of From the Modernist Annex. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
"Roffman opens a welcoming doorway into this poet’s life and work with her engaging, in-depth biography of Ashbery’s early life...She is able to provide a remarkable quantity of detail—not merely the external facts, but also the internal thoughts and struggles of the artist as a young man...With its sharp, informed and unsentimental insight into both the man and his work, The Songs We Know Best is an invaluable biography of a masterful artist." —Robert Weibezahl, BookPage
"The Songs We Know Best offers clues that help to 'stretch poetry rather than level it', to borrow again from Ashbery. It is fascinating for the stories it uncovers and the material it presents." —Times Literary Supplement
"Rigorously intimate...This tender, youth-focused biography will be most enjoyed by Ashbery’s fans and readers interested in a remarkable gay artist’s midcentury coming-of-age story." —Booklist
"This incisive, groundbreaking portrait of the enigmatic and influential poet will be indispensable to all future biographical work." —Kirkus, starred review
"Concise and excellent...Roffman, a sensitive reader of Ashbery’s poetry, explores the roots of Some Trees and much of his subsequent work...The Songs We Know Best hits a high note when Ashbery moves to New York City in 1949 and finally finds his seat at the moveable feast of art, poetry, love, and friendship...Stick with Roffman as she puts the finishing touches on her portrait of the poet." —4Columns
"By far the most thorough and reliable account of a formative period in the biography of one of our greatest and most mysterious writers...The Songs We Know Best lets us see, clearer than ever before, how the poet’s mind works, and how it developed." —The New Republic
"Readers of Ashbery's work will enjoy Roffman's deep insight into the poet." —Library Journal
"With immaculate detail and eloquence...Roffman excels in her recreation of Ashbery’s early years because she does not waver from firsthand sources and never attempts to interpret his life or poetry through pure speculation...An educational, comforting, inspiring book that will satisfy Ashbery’s curious fans." —Publisher's Weekly