Like a Sentence

By John Ashbery b. 1927 John Ashbery
How little we know,   
and when we know it!

It was prettily said that “No man
hath an abundance of cows on the plain, nor shards
in his cupboard.” Wait! I think I know who said that! It was . . .

Never mind, dears, the afternoon
will fold you up, along with preoccupations   
that now seem so important, until only a child   
running around on a unicycle occupies center stage.   
Then what will you make of walls? And I fear you   
will have to come up with something,

be it a terraced gambit above the sea
or gossip overheard in the marketplace.
For you see, it becomes you to be chastened:
for the old to envy the young,
and for youth to fear not getting older,
where the paths through the elms, the carnivals, begin.

And it was said of Gyges that his ring
attracted those who saw him not,
just as those who wandered through him were aware
only of a certain stillness, such as precedes an earache,
while lumberjacks in headbands came down to see what all the fuss was about,
whether it was something they could be part of
sans affront to self-esteem.
And those temple hyenas who had seen enough,
nostrils aflare, fur backing up in the breeze,
were no place you could count on,
having taken a proverbial powder
as rifle butts received another notch.
I, meanwhile . . . I was going to say I had squandered spring   
when summer came along and took it from me   
like a terrier a lady has asked one to hold for a moment
while she adjusts her stocking in the mirror of a weighing machine.   
But here it is winter, and wrong
to speak of other seasons as though they exist.   
Time has only an agenda
in the wallet at his back, while we
who think we know where we are going unfazed
end up in brilliant woods, nourished more than we can know
by the unexpectedness of ice and stars
and crackling tears. We’ll just have to make a go of it,
a run for it. And should the smell of baking cookies appease
one or the other of the olfactory senses, climb down   
into this wagonload of prisoners.

The meter will be screamingly clear then,
the rhythms unbounced, for though we came
to life as to a school, we must leave it without graduating   
even as an ominous wind puffs out the sails
of proud feluccas who don’t know where they’re headed,   
only that a motion is etched there, shaking to be free.

John Ashbery, “Like a Sentence” from And the Stars Were Shining (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994). Copyright © 1994 by John Ashbery. Used by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. for the author.

Source: And the Stars Were Shining (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1994)

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Poet John Ashbery b. 1927

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Subjects Living, Time & Brevity, Arts & Sciences, Language & Linguistics

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 John  Ashbery

Biography

John Ashbery is recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets. He has won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery's poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Time & Brevity, Arts & Sciences, Language & Linguistics

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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