"Ashbery was attracted to boys from the time he was in kindergarten, and anxieties about his homosexuality and its possible discovery were a constant feature of his childhood and adolescence. He made only careful, coded references to homosexuality in his journals and letters, which Roffman has patiently deciphered with the help of the author himself.
After an early sexual experience in 1941, when he ejaculated for the first time after fooling around with a male friend during a sleepover, Ashbery jotted a “poem-note” in his diary “made up of phrases from their conversations that he did not want to forget”:
tulip gardenIt’s remarkable how closely this fragmented, unsyntactical text, written when Ashbery was thirteen and had yet to encounter any modernist poetry, resembles his avant-garde experiments with verbal collage in The Tennis Court Oath and other books. Compare, for instance, this excerpt from “Europe,” written two decades later when Ashbery was living in Paris at the epicenter of the global avant-garde:
home all our own until
recall once more
fashion in shows
dog cast in
were almost learning to forget
happy fear came from
songs likeRoffman 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. This way of understanding Ashbery’s cryptic aesthetic isn’t new—it’s been around since at least 1994, when John Shoptaw’s On the Outside Looking Out argued for a “homotextual” interpretation of his work—but Roffman opens up a whole new archive of powerful biographical evidence supporting it."
You came back to me
you were wrong about the gravestone
that nettles hide quietly
The son is not ours.
Jeg kan god lide den diskrete, men klare biografistiske skepsis, der afslutter anmeldelsen:
"A writer like Ashbery is, in one way, a scholar’s dream. His work is full of cross-references to be tracked down and mysteries to be decoded, and it is in consistent dialogue with both its contemporary historical moment and with the literary canon (however eccentrically that canon is defined). On the other hand, a sense of privacy and inscrutability is intrinsic to the experience of reading him: An Ashbery whose work had been fully explicated wouldn’t be Ashbery at all. 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."