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The title poem of Some Trees (dashed off in an hour, in pencil, at his dorm-room desk) finds congenial figures for intimacy in trees’ silent, dignified proximity—“These are amazing: each / Joining a neighbor, as if speech / Were a still performance ”—and ends in “defense ” of a love that evolves, never entirely articulated, less into PDA than affection’ s telling “accents ”: “Placed in a puzzling light, and moving, / Our days put on such reticence / These accents seem their own defense.

”As The Songs We Know Best becomes a story about the haphazard cobbling-together of Ashbery’ s now-legendary debut Some Trees, Roffman appears at her most eloquent and effortless (and least tethered to references: with forty-three pages of endnotes for 244 pages of text, The Songs We Know Best sometimes seems too resourceful).

For all the golden-hour nostalgia and endearing antiques within Ashbery’ s poetry, his childhood played out over a room tone of sadness:a father’ s disregard, a younger brother’ s unmentionable death, a small town and small minds inhospitable to this gay, ambitious, spacey, irrepressibly odd boy.

Already lodged into literary history, they’ re recently getting the full canonical-poet parade of publications: the last few years have brought us the collected poems of Denise Levertov, A. Ammons, Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, and Lucille Clifton; revised selections or last poems by Allen Ginsberg, W. Merwin, Philip Levine, and June Jordan; and authoritative biographies on two Jameses, Merrill and Wright.As a senior at Deerfield, Ashbery was already placing poetry in Poetry (though not under his name, or any real name—the poems were plagiarized by a roommate and printed under a pseudonym).Later, as the most overambitious undergraduate among many at Harvard, he made plans to “rip modern poetry wide open!The titanic poet of the post-modernist (and pre-Ashbery) generation, Auden at first seems untouchably distant: a chapter later he’ s a near-miss hookup after a Harvard Advocate event, then the subject of Ashbery’ s scraped-together BA thesis; a few years later, he’ s the contest judge awarding the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize to Ashbery’ s debut Some Trees (1956), choosing its title and cutting poems with words deemed unpoetically obscene (“masturbation, ” “farting ”).In large part, The Songs We Know Best narrates the development of John Ashbery the poet—as odd, as temporality-shuffling a story as any in this book.

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(Line them all up and you’ ll hear Ashbery’ s title anew: some trees went into printing these.) Among such phonebook-thick volumes, The Songs We Know Best is the odd one out—felicitously so.

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