Paradoxes and Oxymorons
by John Ashbery
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.
Ashbery’s poem opens with a simple statement: “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.” The clarity of the line is refreshing, because most modern poetry achieves its emotional and intellectual effect by being abstract and vague, hiding its meaning behind obscure symbolism and complicated wording. Such poetry is often frustrating for the reader (namely me, maybe you too), who wants to know what the poem is saying without the fancy evasions.
For example, a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”: “A lustreless protrusive eye / Stares from the protozoic slime / At a perspective of Canaletto. / The smoky candle end of time // Declines. On the Rialto once. / The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot.” Once you get passed the tricky wording, Eliot is stating that European culture, which arose in Italy during the renaissance, is now going into decline — the fault of the Jews, who are worse than rats. Just because a poem is difficult does not mean it is deep.
Just because a poem is simple does not mean it is shallow. Think of William Carlos Williams’ famous poem “Red Wheelbarrow”: “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens.” We can easily understand the words. Yet we may wonder what Williams was trying to accomplish. Even though the poem is easy, it causes anxiety in some readers, who feel they must find something more in it than straight-forward praise for a useful tool on a farm. Much has been written on this short poem and interpretations vary.
Intricate or plain, poetry often fails to engage the reader: “Look at it talking to you. You look out a window / Or pretend to fidget.” Think of the poems you’ve read that have missed their mark because they have gone over your head, or poems you thought were easy to grasp and yet no one seems to be discussing the same poem. One poem may become many in the hands of different readers. Ashbery’s poem is full of anxiety that it will miss its mark: “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.”
The first line of Ashbery’s poem is easy, but we still don’t know how the poem is concerned with language. Is it concerned with the way symbols represent sounds and words, as sound groups, express concepts? Not really. Is it concerned with the way different languages shape our thinking? Not really. Is it concerned with how a word like “freedom” may be twisted into its opposite for political purposes? Not really. Here we have a simple line, but we are not yet sure what it means.
The poem is concerned with language on a very plain level, but “What’s a plain level?” the poem asks in the second stanza: “It is that and other things.” That? What does “that” refer to? A plain level is my best guess. In other words, a plain level is a plain level, but it is also other things, things that are not so plain. Okay, that is both plain and not, like the line itself. Other antecedents of “that” might include sadness or the reader missing the poem or the poem itself.
Perhaps it is all these things and more, “Bringing a system of them into play.” All the various associations and possible interpretations come into play. “Play? / Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be // A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern.” Here the poem begins to lose its plainness. Apparently, various meanings and interpretations form a kind of “dream pattern” outside the poem itself, maybe outside the writer and reader as well. “As in the division of grace these long August days / Without proof.” What? With this line, the poem escapes me. Grace is being divided on a summer day. Religious grace? The grace of poetry? The grace of being able to understand a poem? Here there is no “proof” of what the poem may mean.
The straight-forward poem is beginning to split open: “Open-ended. And before you know / It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.” The open-ended poem gets lost in the effort to compose it, to write it on a typewriter. Not just one typewriter, mind you, but typewriters. What other typewriters could there be? Perhaps the writer is imagining the reader typing out the poem as they read it, rewriting it much as the writer wrote it.
If so, the reader is playing out the poem, much as a pianist must reinterpret the notes on a page. The poem, like a score, is a dead thing that only exists to be played. Once it reaches the reader, the poem the writer wrote has disappeared. The new poem only exists for you. And you, the reader must reimagine the poem; therefore, from the perspective of the poem, you exist only to draw the poem out into the world: “I think you exist only / To tease me into doing it, on your level.” “Doing it” must refer to making poetry, in spite of the risks that poem will miss the reader and reader will miss the poem. “And then you aren’t there” because you have missed the poem, “Or have adopted a different attitude.”
Then we get a fragment: “And the poem.” Does this mean the poem has also adopted a different attitude towards the now frustrated reader? The tone has certainly changed radically from the first line. Or does this line connect to the next line, reading “And the poem. / Has set me softly down beside you.” “Me” must refer to the writer — the first mention of the writer in this meta-poem, because the poem has more to do with the reader than the writer, who is set down beside the reader, at an equal level, both there and not there.
“The poem is you.” Writer, poem, reader are getting confused with each other in a play of dream patterns, because it takes all three, writer, poem and reader, to make a poem and each must give way to the other in order to exist and that makes even the plainest poetry slippery. A paradox, as the title suggests. If you disagree with my reading, there is nothing I or Ashbery can do about it, for the poem is now yours and you are the poem.
One thought on “A Simple Metapoem for an Oxymoron: You”
Thanks to Emily Merriman for this!