Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Plain, Simple, Hard to Figure OUt

Hey, Everyone!

Today we've got a poem that goes right to the heart of what we're trying to do here. Which is to get everybody comfortable enough and familiar enough with poetry to understand it.

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.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

Okay, so a poem walks into a bar, right? It strikes up a conversation with you. Only you don't get it. It's hard to figure out. Maybe the poem assumes you know things and have done things that you haven't. It's nobody's fault. It's as much the poem's fault as yours.

The poem's sad. Being understood is its raison d'etre, its reason for existing.

And here's where the poem gets difficult to follow. That's an oxymoron (terrific word; it literally means "bright dim," signifying something that's self-contradictory). Because the poem's about clarity and simplicity of language. But when you're talking about language, its descriptions get very complicated very fast.

So Ashbery says that he considers poetry to be a form of play. Which is true. But that he considers that form of play to be an immensely serious thing. This playfulness can easily be lost in the "chatter of typewriters." Which means it's a tough thing to do.

But Ashbery has done it again! In this poem! And it makes him wonder (playfully) if you, the reader, only exist in order to coax this poem out of him. But then the "you" that he imagined doesn't exist, does it? And, completed, the poem doesn't distinguish between you and him. He's just another reader now.

Finally, he says "The poem is you." Or "you." He's never met you, after all. The person he addresses really exists only within the poem. The person he's addressing is not you, is not the reader, is the poem. And thus, paradoxically, if you "get" the poem, you are the poem.

That's only one interpretation, of course. You can roll your own if you like.

So is the poem any good? Sure it is. How good? That's up to you to decide.

All best,


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