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…”
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?
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?
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John Ashbery: “Paradoxes and Oxymorons”
Stepping into John Ashbery’s poetry is like stepping into another mind that is surprising and sad and full of odd gleam. His poems don’t snowball toward an epiphany, nor do they stick to the story. They veer as the mind often does, and so within each of his poems readers encounter a diversity of images, tones, and sonic elements. Each of his lines tends to approach from a slightly different angle, or with a slightly (or at times abruptly) different tone. His poems glean energy through the fruitful proximity of seemingly disparate things or, as he describes in his poem “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” “bringing a system of them into play.”
I once had a teacher who dismissed an elusive poem with the note “stranger than Ashbery!” This comment has stuck with me since I often wonder what it is we need from a poem and what work we, as readers, can do. What role can we play in the creative act—the act of creating a poem’s meaning? Ashbery’s poetry doesn’t often yield meaning upon prodding, or textbook explication, but what happens if we try reading as an act of deep play? When a reader joins a poem such as “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” as a partner, a co-creator, what ensues is a rich, satisfying reading, one that could not have been had if the reader had held the poem at arm’s length. In other words, Ashbery doesn’t purposely thwart readers with an unsolvable riddle—instead, he offers us strange music and a dance partner. It’s that interaction between the reader and the poem that yields the sweetness, the movement, we seek from poems.
In “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” a reader seeking explication immediately finds fruitful work unpacking the title. The words paradox and oxymoron have Greek roots, meaning “contrary to expectation” and “sharply foolish,” respectively, and after their lead, what starts as a straightforward explanation of poetics almost immediately turns strange and slips from our grasp—a process that is calmly narrated for us. But what is it to grasp a poem? To get it? Ashbery knows you’re nervous. Later, in the second stanza, we are told “the poem is sad”—is Ashbery making fun of us? Are we really letting the poem down? More importantly, are we having fun yet? Why do we turn to Ashbery’s poems anyway?
Ashbery offers a few poetic conventions as tools here to help readers focus on experiencing the poem rather than analyzing it. Every poem in Shadow Train (1981), where “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” was originally published, is composed of exactly 16 lines, placing them in conversation with sonnets, though none of these poems would refer to themselves as such. He hints at a metrical pattern and then shies away from it. He often makes use of what Frost called “the sound of sense,” using the rhythm and syntax of familiar speech. “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” uses simple vocabulary and looks regular and predictable on the page. And yet nothing here is put to conventional use.
Ashbery commonly employs a close second-person address and surprising, disarming moments of humor. He makes use of both here. The first line seems explanatory and didactic, preparing your expectations: “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.” He invites readers into the experience by addressing us as “you” from the beginning, as though conspiring with us, but then he zooms out to show us ourselves leaning in: “Look at [the poem] talking to you.” And so we straighten self-consciously as we find the poet anticipating and narrating our slight discomfort: “You look out a window / Or pretend to fidget.” By the second stanza, Ashbery has begun to speak of “you” (the reader?) and “it” (the poem?) as one might a romantic couple struggling with the burden of distance: “You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.” [ . . . ] “it wants to be yours, and cannot,” a distance apparent even in the gulf of a stanza break. This pull between intimacy and distance continues until the end of the poem—“The poem is you.”—where it reads like a revelation. What is engaging is less the puzzle of what Ashbery means by “the poem” or “a plain level” or how many paradoxes and oxymorons the astute reader can locate, but more the clear window it offers into how we approach poetry, how reading can be a creative and playful act. This turns “I don’t get it” into “I haven’t made anything with it.”
Ashbery distracts readers as though it’s his life’s work. Or, rather, he distracts those who would analyze rather than experience his poetry. What he asks for is play, and here, he asks for it directly at the end of the second stanza:
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
It is this sweet lyrical moment that we can finally sink into, after the discursive, straight-backed chair of the previous lines. Here the analytical reader sets down his hands, feels the startling pleasure of “as in the division of grace these long August days / Without proof,” and begins to sway with it, and then dance, getting to know the work by feeling its turns, lunges, and hesitations.
From that wide lyric moment of “the division of grace,” which is held in the poem’s longest sentence, and so takes the reader’s longest breath—which here feels to me like a bolt of fabric unfolding quickly, surely—we cut to the poem’s shortest sentence: “Open-ended.” This one-word sentence, tucked mid-line, idles like a leaf in a small eddy: at first I brush impatiently past, then am pulled back as the two halves of that all-too-common phrase fall open into a little joke: ended the opposite of open, something I’ve never noticed before, though I use the phrase often enough. Here a progression? An eternity? A tap on the shoulder as we go rushing past?
“Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know. . . .” At the end of the same line—and for me this line is the one I most often return to, in which three things are happening at once, three sentences woven together, Ashbery’s definition of play turning into its enactment, its spinning model of a solar system—there at the end, “And before you know,” a phrase I come to fast, headlong, there at the line break the poem teeters and pauses, with “it” starting the next line, and so, though I want to read the phrase as “Before you know it,” because of where the line break is, that “it” pauses alone at the hub a moment. What is this “it”? Scanning backward for the last explicit thing that “it” could be referring to, I see language’s “plain level” but also the move from two to three dimensions that happens in the middle of the second stanza, where a “plain level” is “[brought] into play,” evoking for me a child’s mobile loosened from its flat, perforated paper sheet, then hung where the air will move its separate, counterbalanced parts. I don’t linger here long, with so much open and unspooled. “Steam and chatter of typewriters,” then, feels like the final chute in a Rube Goldberg device, in which these typewriters are performing the work for the chimps, or chumps, sitting in front of them. I feel myself reluctantly coming out of that lyrical progression, seeking my bearings, the pupils of my eyes still theater-dark.
The final stanza prepares me for the close of the poem, and for my return to reality from the vastness of private thought. It’s where I remember, after that lyrical tumble, that I’m not alone in this poem, but rather have to make room for the poet and his discovery as well. This word “level” again, recalling the plain level that seemed like a good handrail earlier but now just blocks the view. I find myself finally, peaceably beside the speaker, looking out from a hillside at the commotion elsewhere. In just 16 lines, I have gone from 2-D to 3-D, experiencing awe at the act of transformation, humor at the limits of what we expect to happen in a poem, inexplicable lyric joy, and the clatter of machines and the loneliness of their silence—and finally arrived at a widened sense of poetic and emotional possibility.
Ashbery reminds me why I read poems. It’s not to understand a poet’s intentions, or to get to know the poet. It’s to savor the movement of mind that comes from fully engaging with a rich poem, and tracing the edges of structures whose echoes and ghost-images will appear at surprising intersections in the days ahead, working themselves through in my mind. Work, in that context—the work of bridging gaps, navigating a sharp turn, weighing one thing against another—feels like play. I get lost in it, I resurface, I dive back down. I show up muddy to lunch. I’m not trying to get exactly out of the poem what the poet put in; I’m certain that I won’t. What I get, rather, is exactly what I need, which shifts with each reading. I need a structure strong, engaging, and open enough to lead me beyond my own expectations into an exploration of what it truly means for one word, or idea, or person to connect to another—a chain of those connections strong enough, and flexible enough, to swing out over the vastness of possibility.
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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, and stylistic scaffolding of verse in favor of a literature that reflects upon the limits of language and the volatility of consciousness. In the New Criterion, William Logan noted: "Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning. [Ashbery] reminds us that most poets who give us meaning don't know what they're talking about." The New York Times Book Review essayist Stephen Koch characterized Ashbery's voice as "a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm...
Poems By John Ashbery
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