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.

"Paradoxes and Oxymorons" from Shadow Train by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery. Used by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., on behalf of the author.
Source: Shadow Train (Penguin Books, 1980)

Writing Ideas

1. Try writing a poem that plays with pronouns in the way Ashbery’s does. Take any line or sentence of the poem and use it as a first line—how does your understanding of what “it” stands for, or who “you” is, change as you write?


2. In a way, Ashbery’s poem addresses language itself. Try writing another poem that addresses poetry or language. Like Ashbery, begin your poem with “This poem is concerned with…”

Discussion Questions

1. Paradoxes are statements that, though contradictory, are true; oxymorons also combine contradictory terms. What are some of the paradoxes in the poem? Some of the oxymorons? How do the title and the first line set up or undermine your expectations for the poem?


2. How does the poem bring into question pronouns like “you,” “I” and “it”? Do you think “you” remains the same throughout the poem? When does it change (from being a specific “you” to a general “you,” for example), and why?


3. In what way is the poem a love poem? How does it sound similar to or different from other love poems you’ve read?


4. How would you describe the “characters” in the poem—“I,” “you,” and “the poem”? What role does each play? How do the three interact?

Teaching Tips

1. Have students look up the definition of paradox and oxymoron and share examples of these terms. Working in small groups, they might create a poster on which they could display the definition and examples collected from a variety of sources. Alternatively, you might share the definitions and have the class generate as many examples as they can in five minutes. A third alternative, depending upon your students’ level of proficiency, might be to find an example for discussion in a newspaper article or in another discipline, such as mathematics, in which Zeno’s paradox is introduced to students.


2. Once students have a working definition of these terms, have them take each term one by one and read through the poem looking for an example of the poet playing with these terms. Take, for example, the first line and ask, can the language of a poem ever be read on a “plain level?” Move line by line and see where more and less obvious examples of these devices are at work. Ask, what commentary does the poet seem to be making about language, poetry, meaning, etc.


3. Have students view the video animation and discuss the animator’s choices, evaluating the selection of images and their connection to the text. Ask, how does the animator use the tools of this medium to represent the ideas of the poem in this video?

More Poems by John Ashbery