Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Poetry saving America #NationalPoetryMonth

John Ashbery wrote a poem that may, or may not, belong on a list like Tony Hoagland's Twenty Poems That Could Save America. We haven't yet decided about that, but we do think that Ashbery's The One Thing That Can Save America belongs with Hoagland's list or any like it.

why are developments named after what they've replaced?
why are developments named after what they've replaced?
Photo by J. Harrington

We haven't read much of Ashbery's work. It's only through a book we recently finished that we've come to reconsider Ashbery's poetry. We knew his reputation, but had found his poems excessively cryptic. Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry nudged us to reconsider by introducing us to and walking us through:

The One Thing That Can Save America



Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place names central?
Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Book Farm?
As they concur with a rush at eye level
Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough
Thank you, no more thank you.
And they come on like scenery mingled with darkness
The damp plains, overgrown suburbs,
Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.

These are connected to my version of America
But the juice is elsewhere.
This morning as I walked out of your room
After breakfast crosshatched with
Backward and forward glances, backward into light,
Forward into unfamiliar light,
Was it our doing, and was it
The material, the lumber of life, or of lives
We were measuring, counting?
A mood soon to be forgotten
In crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow
In this morning that has seized us again?

I know that I braid too much on my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to bloom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you know instantly what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?

It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.
All the rest is waiting
For a letter that never arrives,
Day after day, the exasperation
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.
Here's an introduction to Zapruder's writing on Ashbery's poem. What we found is that Ashbery, via Zapruder, raises questions about:
  • saving America from What?;
  • saving America for What?
  • from Whom?
  • for Whom?
Somehow, the poems on Hoagland's list didn't trigger such questions. They lay dormant. Ashbery not only awakened those questions, his poem also evoked the ghosts of Yeats' The Second Coming. Perhaps we're reading too closely, but we believe the last several lines of Ashbery's "The One Thing..." imply, or at least we infer, that the steps depend on us communicating with our neighbors, honestly, openly, to reach agreement on what we have in common and how we will better manage our differences. The challenges and opportunities facing us are to important to be left to politicians. They belong to us and Shelly's "unacknowledged legislators of the world."


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