April 1, 2013

NPM 2013 - A is for Ashbery

After a long hiatus, I have returned to this blog to celebrate National Poetry Month in 2013. I'll be posting a poem every day, going down alphabetically from A to Z, probably skipping Q and X and saving the last 6-7 days for some other variations and ideas about poetry. I will be posting poems that I find online already but in all cases the copyright remains with the poets and the publishers of the poem. The idea of reproducing a poem here is merely to help readers develop an interest and love in poetry. Also, the intention is not to explain or critique poetry; I am certainly not qualified to do this.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let me start today with John Ashbery, one of the greatest living poets writing in English today. I have read a lot of his poems over the years and I've still read less than 10% of his poems; that's how prolific he is, writing even today well into his 80s. And like others, I've sometimes struggled to understand his poems. But poetry, for me, need not be understood in all its complexity in one read. To go back to a poem and to read and re-read it and live its musicality is sufficient joy. And of all of the poets, John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens (more about him later this month) are the poets that keep drawing me back to them despite me not understanding them completely sometimes.

John Ashbery

One of my favorite Ashbery poems is his most famous long poem, Self Portrait in A Convex Mirror, but I will not be sharing that here today since it is full of so many quotable excerpts and how does one choose one over the other! It is too long to be shared here in its entirety; I always savor it piece-meal a few pages at a time. It really has to be read from the beginning to enjoy it and so excerpting it here is not a good idea.

Instead, here is are two poems that are shorter and can be savored in one quick read.

A Tone Poem
by John Ashbery

It is no longer night. But there is a sameness
Of intention, all the same, in the ways
We address it, rude
Color of what an amazing world,
As it goes flat, or rubs off, and this
Is a marvel, we think, and are careful not to go past it.

But it is the same thing we are all seeing,
Our world. Go after it,
Go get it boy, says the man holding the stick.
Eat, says the hunger, and we plunge blindly in again,
Into the chamber behind the thought.
We can hear it, even think it, but can't get disentangled
from our brains.
Here, I am holding the winning ticket. Over here.
But it is all the same color again, as though the climate
Dyed everything the same color. It's more practical,
Yet the landscape, these billboards, age as rapidly as before.

And the second one talks about poetry, whichever way you like it - plain or teasingly difficult, a tad obscure but alluring.... inveigling and capturing us with the beauty of the language and the resonances and musicality of the phrasing even before we understand it fully. Or as Erica Wright put it in the preface to an interview with Ashbery in Guernica Magazine, his poems can be "difficult, magnetic, rebellious." Magnetic, alright; there's something in most of Ashbery's poetry that draws me in  - like iron drawn to a magnet!

Paradoxes and Oxymorons
by John Ashbery

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.

Note: My post on Ashbery when I was celebration National Poetry Month in 2011.

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