Sunday, December 17, 2006

John Ashbery, "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What's a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.


From Shadow Train (1981)

This poem was considered for both the ars poetica and title weeks, but it didn't quite fit for either. If (and, most likely, when) I do a "meta" or postmodern week (though a lot of the poetry I've been picking already has been about poetry to one degree or anotherm due to this being, you know, a blog about poetry) it would be in there. But it's here now, so, um rejoice! I don't know Ashbery's work that well, but he is renowned as kind of the father of contemporary poetry in the meta/pomo vein (such that quite a bit of contemporary stuff is derided as being inferior imitations of Ashbery [b. 1927]). But leaving contemporary poetic politics aside, his work is quite interesting for its play with lyric conventions. Here, he toys with the common address of a 'you' assumed to be a real person existing external from the poem (especially a person in some romantic relation to the speaker). The poem also questions whether the 'plain level' of such conventional, 'transparent' language. Instead, Ashbery is in favor of 'play', which is not to be taken as something trivial, but as a serious interrogation of our naive assumptions about the world, and so is "A deeper outside thing". The poem returns in the end to a conventional lyric movement, but where the content of its gestures continues to evade our expectations of poetic meaning. The combination of familiarity and strangeness makes the poem both appealing and challenging, helping and pushing the reader to venture beyond his former patterns of thought.

(Read more on John Ashbery:

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