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Collaborating with both Ashbery the septa-then-octogenarian and Ashbery the teenager, Roffman stitches together interviews with the former and the latter’ s diaries, totaling over a thousand pages, offering a meticulous (though often enciphered) accounting of ages thirteen through sixteen.

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That virtue enriches the first chapters of The Songs We Know Best, on Ashbery’ s roots and childhood in upstate New York, divided between the family farm in Sodus and his grandparents’ house in Pultneyville.

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.

As self-defense and self-distraction, the young Ashbery turned to playwriting, art history, technicolor spectacle, and overblown crushes; he fostered a competitive sense of bookishness that just about made him a quizbowl child star.

(His record was imperfect, tragicomically: at the New York state spelling bee, the thirteen-year-old Ashbery spelled as far as D-E-S-P-A, realized his error, and was knocked out on “desperately.

You know, I’ d say ‘had a tuna sandwich for lunch.’ ” So much for self-analysis.)“The diaries were a revelation, ” Roffman writes, “because the voice of the poet was so present already, ” years before his mature (or immature) poetry took shape: there, unmistakably, were “his wry sense of humor, patience, impatience, and attention to the experience of his experience.

” A precocious teenager, no doubt, though it’ s just as fair to say that Ashbery the twenty-something (even the eighty-something) was constitutionally adolescent: Ashbery grows into a voice that can turn gushily romantic or moodily evasive, self-amusing or parodic of any adult pretensions within earshot.

Mystara first appeared in published form in 1981 and even existed before that as the home campaign of Tom Moldvay and Lawrence Schick in Ohio.

Of course, it would take years before it got the name Mystara.

(“None of us ever graduates from college, ” Ashbery would write in “Soonest Mended, ” which he deemed his “one-size-fits-all ” confessional poem.

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