We’re coming up on our 20th anniversary, and today’s entry feels like a full circle moment. The first official MV mailing came from a bc.edu account, typed out in a computer lab in the basement of O’Neill Library, and I remember that it was John Ashbery’s (1927-2017) "Paradoxes and Oxymorons." I’d just discovered the poem itself, either in a class anthology, or because some classmate really liked Ashbery and told me I should read some. At the time, he was a spry young master poet of 70 years (and I myself a sterling lad); over the weekend he died, aged 90. From the beginning, critics found him slipping into a distinctly American chorus of poets including Whitman, Dickinson, and Stevens; at the same time everyone acknowledges his as a distinct, even eccentric, voice. Ashbery could switch registers and positions within a book, and within a single poem… his poems sometimes look "hard," but at the same time, his is a playful, friendly voice. That’s nowhere on display more than in this poem, which we’ve probably read 4-5 times over the years. It’s one I have to keep coming back to.
One of my favorite Ashbery quotes (I hope it’s him?!) is that a poem’s meaning is in the time it takes to unroll. It think about that all the time — the experience of being "with" the poem is so much richer than the intellectual process of trying to figure out what the poem "means." I’m glad his poems set themselves down by me, for a little while. -ed.
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.