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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:
Here's an introduction to Zapruder's writing on Ashbery's poem. What we found is that Ashbery, via Zapruder, raises questions about:
The One Thing That Can Save America
By John Ashbery
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 levelBeating themselves into eyes which have had enoughThank you, no more thank you.And they come on like scenery mingled with darknessThe damp plains, overgrown suburbs,Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.
These are connected to my version of AmericaBut the juice is elsewhere.This morning as I walked out of your roomAfter breakfast crosshatched withBackward and forward glances, backward into light,Forward into unfamiliar light,Was it our doing, and was itThe material, the lumber of life, or of livesWe were measuring, counting?A mood soon to be forgottenIn crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadowIn this morning that has seized us again?
I know that I braid too much on my ownSnapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.They are private and always will be.Where then are the private turns of eventDestined to bloom later like golden chimesReleased 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 roadsHides them? Where are these roots?
It is the lumps and trialsThat tell us whether we shall be knownAnd whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.All the rest is waitingFor a letter that never arrives,Day after day, the exasperationUntil finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,The two envelope halves lying on a plate.The message was wise, and seeminglyDictated a long time ago, but its time has stillNot arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limitedSteps that can be taken against dangerNow and in the future, in cool yards,In quiet small houses in the country,Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.
- 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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Please be kind to each other while you can.