Monday, July 04, 2011

John Ashbery - The One Thing That Can Save America

The One Thing That Can Save America
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 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.


At 7/05/2011 8:07 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I've always liked this poem and loved this poet, but now my first thought is "I wish he'd really tell us something that could save America, 'the mostly limited steps that can be taken against' the dangers besetting us. Something to disinter us from the deep shit in which we are submerged. Instead of amusingly undercutting the title by thwarting our expectation of some socio-political wisdom. (Well, you might expect that if you were unacquainted with Ashbery.) Maybe this poem is the product of an era when America was more secure in its hegemony.

At 7/05/2011 8:26 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I meant to put closing quotation marks in there somewhere, not to write an open-24-hours quotation.

At 7/08/2011 6:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"I wish that there was something that could save America, but it appears to me it's just going to stagger along like all the rest, like us."

Or something like that.

At 7/08/2011 7:55 AM, Blogger skholiast said...

"I would like to hear one anecdote of someone being called, pejoratively, sincere. And then had a reaction of embarrassment."

Here's an outlier case: Harold Bloom says it about C.S. Lewis:
"I myself, who have read all of Lewis' poetry, can find in it only the truth of Oscar Wilde's observation: 'All bad poetry is sincere.'"

Of course, Lewis is (1) not really thought of for his poetry; (2) unlikely to have been shamed by this, and (3) was also dead at the time, so, no, it doesn't serve as a counter-example. I suspect if I looked hard enough I could find several other places where H.B. has dropped the same Wildeism, perhaps closer to home; but that's too much work. In any case, I'm guessing that Wilde is the font to which the modern motif of suspicion of sincerity can be traced, and maybe it is really this that Hoagland is trying to get at. Not that this is your main point.

At 7/08/2011 7:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

SK -

You posted this on the wrong post! I'd like to reply to it. Can I move it?


At 7/08/2011 9:02 AM, Blogger David Grove said...


Is Wilde the font, or is it the anti-rationalism of the French Symbolists and Aesthetes who influenced him, Baudelaire and Pater et al.?

At 7/08/2011 10:02 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I mean, do you think the anti-rationalism of those movements engendered Wilde's almost Freud-like sense that human behavior isn't rationally motivated, that people are complex and contradictory? Since people are like that, when you try to sincerely express what you yourself think, what you write is likely to be distorted by some subterranean desire. Only when you're insincere--when you strike a pose or pretend to be someone else--do you express what you really think.

At 7/08/2011 10:57 AM, Blogger skholiast said...

yeah, I don't know how that mis-post happened. Something about the refresh button. Sorry about that. I re-sent it on the right thread.

At 7/08/2011 4:56 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

David, I'm going to post your responses on the other thread, so we can keep everything in line. Lines are important. It's how we know who goes off the cliff first.

At 7/17/2011 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend just sent me this link, an 'Ashbery for Beginners' by Meghan O'Rourke. I didn't see it listed anywhere n the archives, so have at it:


At 7/18/2011 9:19 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Send that link to Gary, he's been looking for a key into that place for a long time.


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