John Ashbery was born on 28 July 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a farm thirty miles away in Sodus, New York. From a very early age, Ashbery was shy, bookish, and intellectual. In his early poem and self-portrait “The Picture of Little J.A in a Prospect of Flowers,” Ashbery describes his appearance as
My small self in that bank of flowers:
My head among the blazing phlox
Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus.
I had a hard stare, accepting
Everything, taking nothing.
Ashbery seems to present himself here as a kind of distrustful outcast (suggested by “the hard stare”), though the lines also suggest a complicated mix of the gentle, the geeky and the learned. Such a “…