John Ashberry’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons”

While I don’t think I agree with Postmodern American Poetry editor Paul Hoover that “John Ashberry was recognized as the leading poet of his generation,” I did find enough poems that I liked that I put Ashberry on my growing list of poets to explore.

My favorite poem, or at least the one I’m willing to type in, is


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 stream 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.

Perhaps I like this poem best because it clearly expresses an important theme in Ashberry’s poetry, ironic because “clarity” in and of itself, is certainly not one of his poetry’s main characteristics.

The opening stanza’s argument that “You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other” is certainly familiar to anyone who has ever tried to “teach” poetry to a classroom full of students, even if poetry that seems directly relevant to their lives. They don’t understand the poem, and, in a very real sense, the poem misses them because they are a different generation than the author.

Of course, the poet is sad because he lives to reach others, it’s the reason he writes, isn’t it? But truth, or reality, is beyond the reach of “plain language.”

Perhaps all we can hope to do is to “play” at telling the truth, which is what most writers do. Novelists play at telling the “truth” by deceiving us into believing what is not true. Poets use a particular form of play to tell their truth, but in reality most of what is “true” “gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.”

The poet is tempted to write for an audience, but more often than not lately, there is no real audience for poetry at all. Fickle audiences adore a poet’s current book, but hardly notice when he publishes a new book. Fifteen minutes of fame is, indeed, a very short time, hardly time enough to write another book.

Apparently I’m not the only one who likes this poem as there’s a lot of commentary on the web, though I found this commentary the most informative.

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