Tag Archives: john ashbery

Oct 22, 2012 Paradoxes and Oxymorons

Well, the comments have been made, the invitation sent… I can no longer avoid a “cut and paste” job, and re-printing this MV classic, first printed 15 years ago, down to the month. How many of us were there then–12? 20? The research department here at MV tells me the latest known publication was 6 years ago, again to the month, October 9, 2006. Reading today’s poem for the first time was like total infatuation, but it hasn’t faded much: I’ve been going back to the well of John Ashbery throughout these years. Please take a moment to enjoy one of his most lucid, concise, and lyrical statements. -ed

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.


October 15, 2012 The Short Answer

Dear readers,

last week I was out in the tall pines of northern California talking with a friend about how her child–her year-and-a-half old child–likes poetry. That sounded pretty good to me. I asked whether the child likes John Ashbery, but apparently they haven’t made it to the contemporary Americans yet, working as they are through the Renaissance and 19th Century. When one reads Ashbery, the urge is first to say nonsense. I’m not sure he’d have a big problem with that, but I’ll defend him from it nonetheless. It’s not so much that Ashbery’s poems lack meaning, it’s that meaning is beside the point. What is the point? It is that, and other things. Long-time readers will recall that an Ashbery poem–probably still in my top 5 all-time–was one of the very first MV selections. It’s one we’ve returned to again and again. How pleasant, then, on my flight home, to realize that I’d swiped another friend’s copy of the New Yorker during my trip west, and that there, on p. 57, was a new poem by our court jester supreme. I’m not the best at recognizing contemporary poets, but I wager that just from the number of question marks and the word “pince-nez” I’d have pegged this as an Ashbery. Something about his approach strikes me as side-splitting, and plenty serious enough. -ed.


I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time.

We hold on to these old ways, are troubled

sometimes and then the geyser goes away,

time gutted. In and of itself there is

no great roar, force pitted against force that

makes up in time what it loses in speed.

The waterfalls, the canyon, the royal I-told-you-so

comes back to greet us at the beginning.

How was your trip? Oh I didn’t last

you see, folded like the margin

of a dream of the thing-in-itself. Well, and

what have we come to? A paper-thin past,

just so, and more’s the pity. We regurgitate

old anthems and what has come to pass, and why

dwell on these. Why make things more difficult

than they already are? Because if it’s boring

in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.

That’s what I say.

That rascal jumped over the fence.

I’m wiping my pince-nez now. Did you ever hear from

the one who said he’d be back once it was over,

who eluded me even in my sleep? That was a particularly

promising time, we thought. Now the sun’s out

and it’s raining again. Just like a day from

the compendium. I’ll vouch for you,

and we can go on scrolling as though nothing had risen,

the horizon forest looks back at us. The preacher

shook his head, the evangelist balanced two spools

at the end of his little makeshift rope. We’d gone too far.

We’d have to come back in a day or so.


Monday’s Verse, March 23/09

Here’s something quite amazing: a John Ashbery poem. I fecking love John Ashbery (anagram: “a BJ; he’s horny”). And yes, he’s that guy with the funny name and the funny poems which are so “hard” they don’t always seem funny. His aim, he once admitted, was “to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.” But that should not prevent us from reading them, and talking about them. Maybe we have to adjust the way we talk about them. And the way we read. We often talk about the critic’s quiver of analytic arrows in this forum, but Ashbery has also said, “For me, poetry is very much the time that it takes to unroll, the way music does… it’s not a static, contemplatable thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture.”

This poem is one you really have to step into, maybe twice, to get the feel of. It’s long, but listen to it unroll like a fugue. Or flow like a river?


PS: Visitors to the northern Italian town of Pavia will appreciate the final stanza.


Far from the Rappahannock, the silent
Danube moves along toward the sea.
The brown and green Nile rolls slowly
Like the Niagara’s welling descent.
Tractors stood on the green banks of the Loire
Near where it joined the Cher.
The St. Lawrence prods among black stones
And mud. But the Arno is all stones.
Wind ruffles the Hudson’s
Surface. The Irawaddy is overflowing.
But the yellowish, gray Tiber
Is contained within steep banks. The Isar
Flows too fast to swim in, the Jordan’s water
Courses over the flat land. The Allegheny and its boats
Were dark blue. The Moskowa is
Gray boats. The Amstel flows slowly.
Leaves fall into the Connecticut as it passes
Underneath. The Liffey is full of sewage,
Like the Seine, but unlike
The brownish-yellow Dordogne.
Mountains hem in the Colorado
And the Oder is very deep, almost
As deep as the Congo is wide.
The plain banks of the Neva are
Gray. The dark Saône flows silently.
And the Volga is long and wide
As it flows across the brownish land. The Ebro
Is blue, and slow. The Shannon flows
Swiftly between its banks. The Mississippi
Is one of the world’s longest rivers, like the Amazon.
It has the Missouri for a tributary.
The Harlem flows amid factories
And buildings. The Nelson is in Canada,
Flowing. Through hard banks the Dubawnt
Forces its way. People walk near the Trent.
The landscape around the Mohawk stretches away;
The Rubicon is merely a brook.
In winter the Main
Surges; the Rhine sings its eternal song.
The Rhône slogs along through whitish banks
And the Rio Grande spins tales of the past.
The Loir bursts its frozen shackles
But the Moldau’s wet mud ensnares it.
The East catches the light.
Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.
The Po too flows, and the many-colored
Thames. Into the Atlantic Ocean
Pours the Garonne. Few ships navigate
On the Housatonic, but quite a few can be seen
On the Elbe. For centuries
The Afton has flowed.
If the Rio Negro
Could abandon its song, and the Magdalena
The jungle flowers, the Tagus
Would still flow serenely, and the Ohio
Abrade its slate banks. The tan Euphrates would
Sidle silently across the world. The Yukon
Was choked with ice, but the Susquehanna still pushed
Bravely along. The Dee caught the day’s last flares
Like the Pilcomayo’s carrion rose.
The Peace offered eternal fragrance
Perhaps, but the Mackenzie churned livid mud
Like tan chalk-marks. Near where
The Brahmaputra slapped swollen dikes
And the Pechora? The São Francisco
Skulks amid gray, rubbery nettles. The Liard’s
Reflexes are slow, and the Arkansas erodes
Anthracite hummocks. The Paraná stinks.
The Ottawa is light emerald green
Among grays. Better that the Indus fade
In steaming sands! Let the Brazos
Freeze solid! And the Wabash turn to a leaden
Cinder of ice! The Marañón is too tepid, we must
Find a way to freeze it hard. The Ural
Is freezing slowly in the blasts. The black Yonne
Congeals nicely. And the Petit-Morin
Curls up on the solid earth. The Inn
Does not remember better times, and the Merrimack‘s
Galvanized. The Ganges is liquid snow by now;
The Vyatka’s ice-gray. The once-molten Tennessee s
Curdled. The Japurá is a pack of ice. Gelid
The Columbia’s gray loam banks. The Don’s merely
A giant icicle. The Niger freezes, slowly.
The interminable Lena plods on
But the Purus’ mercurial waters are icy, grim
With cold. The Loing is choked with fragments of ice.
The Weser is frozen, like liquid air.
And so is the Kama. And the beige, thickly flowing
Tocantins. The rivers bask in the cold.
The stern Uruguay chafes its banks,
A mass of ice. The Hooghly is solid
Ice. The Adour is silent, motionless.
The lovely Tigris is nothing but scratchy ice
Like the Yellowstone, with its osier-clustered banks.
The Mekong is beginning to thaw out a little
And the Donets gurgles beneath the
Huge blocks of ice. The Manzanares gushes free.
The Illinois darts through the sunny air again.
But the Dnieper is still ice-bound. Somewhere
The Salado propels irs floes, but the Roosevelt’s
Frozen. The Oka is frozen solider
Than the Somme. The Minho slumbers
In winter, nor does the Snake
Remember August. Hilarious, the Canadian
Is solid ice. The Madeira slavers
Across the thawing fields, and the Plata laughs.
The Dvina soaks up the snow. The Sava’s
Temperature is above freezing. The Avon
Carols noiselessly. The Drôme presses
Grass banks; the Adige’s frozen
Surface is like gray pebbles.

Birds circle the Ticino. In winter
The Var was dark blue, unfrozen. The
Thwaite, cold, is choked with sandy ice;
The Ardèche glistens feebly through the freezing rain.