...[an] illuminating account of his early life ... Ashbery found himself in circles of brilliant, artistically inclined and often gay men and women, but seems never to have felt as exuberantly at home in these shifting coteries as the effervescent O’Hara. A portrait by Fairfield Porter of 1952 – one of the many superb illustrations included in this book – presents a slumped and melancholy figure. He fell in love often and deeply, but Roffman records more disappointments and frustrations than triumphs. Until, that is, the annus mirabilis of 1955 ... The last photo in this entertaining and brilliantly researched book shows a dapper young Ashbery in a smart overcoat on the streets of Montpellier. I think he is almost smiling.
...by far the most thorough and reliable account of a formative period in the biography of one of our greatest and most mysterious writers ... Roffman argues, plausibly, that Ashbery’s practical need to disguise his homosexuality led him to cultivate his taste for ambiguity and indirection, and she analyzes many of his early poems along these lines ... The Songs We Know Best lets us see, clearer than ever before, how the poet’s mind works, and how it developed. Still, you can’t help remaining a little nostalgic for the mystery.
Roffman’s decision to focus solely on Ashbery’s youth pays off, however, because this crucial period of Ashbery’s life has been little explored or understood, and because she manages to fill in the familiar but vague outlines with such rich and fascinating detail gleaned from exhaustive research — especially her deep dive into unpublished early poems, newly uncovered diaries and extensive interviews with Ashbery himself. The result is a treasure trove for scholars, fans and casual readers alike ... Like a classic bildungsroman, The Songs We Know Best tells the story of a shy, sensitive, preternaturally gifted boy who weathers a lonely childhood on a farm, awakens to the joys and mysteries of art, poetry and sex as a teenager, and finally assumes his true vocation as a poet when he arrives in the big city and falls in with a circle of revolutionary writers and artists. It is also an affecting narrative about growing up gay in a virulently hostile, intolerant culture — a moving portrait of an artist who not only survived that ordeal as a young man but became, improbably enough, one of the greatest poets of his age.