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.

13 thoughts on “John Ashberry’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons””

  1. Good choice.
    In Vectors, James Richardson writes, “Only half of writing is saying what you mean. The other half is preventing people from reading what they expected you to mean.”
    It must be true that poets write “to reach others” as you say, but the value is in insight. I think of Dickenson’s poem about telling the truth “slant.” Perhaps your meaning in distinguishing “plain language” from poetry relates to language that abandons the discovery process and says only what the reader expects to hear.

  2. Tom, I guess I was trying to paraphrase Ashberry’s poem when I said, “But truth, or reality, is beyond the reach of plain language.” That seems to me what the poem is saying.

    However, I also believe that certain kinds of truth, ultimate truths, or religious truths cannot be conveyed by “plain language,” hence the need for paradoxes and oxymorons.

    Is it even possible to explain in plain language why so many people in the world seem to hate the United States? Or are the reasons so complex that they can only be described in complex terms?

  3. Well, plain language is probably unusable for some communication, but as you say there’s an aspect of play in expressing a point indirectly that adds to its meaning. I remember reading a poem by Frost where he wrote about the sadness (I’m sure that was his word) in saying plainly what he meant to communicate in his poem. The concluding line in Ashberry’s poem seems to me a resignation that whatever his intent in the writing, the poem has life only as it’s received. There may be limitations in language, Loren, but it’s likely we haven’t reached them. Patchen has some beautiful lines in Albion Moonlight:

    We still have not tamed the kingdom of the word. The word is to put it plainly unlettered.

    The word is the call of the tribe from down under the water.
    The word is the way something floats which cannot be seen.
    The word is the thing the wind speaks to the dead.

    The word is the white candle at the foot of the throne.

    (Isn’t that cool?)

  4. OK, Loren, I guess you’re going to have to teach me a bit here. I have trouble seeing this as poetry – I know, or I’m pretty sure, I’ve commented on this before. I’m not trying to be a stickler for iambic pentameter or some such, but what constitutes poetry? What makes this poetry, and not just lines of text arranged in a pattern? I grasp the meaning of his words, but I can’t grasp the medium. Is it really just metered prose, in any form? Is this poetry?

    “Notice the numbers in the
    comments; they tell you
    the major device number of
    the set being declared”

    (feeling combative tonight, I’m in the midst of a major system upgrade)

  5. Harry, don’t shoot the messenger here. Like you, I’m trying to figure out if this “postmodern” stuff is poetry or not.

    If you don’t think this is poetry, you sure don’t want to try to get through Hoover’s book then because the poems I’ve picked out so far are certainly the closest to what has passed for poetry for most of my life.

    I’m really trying to keep an open mind here and find which of these postmodern poets are worth exploring further.

    Certainly the line length, though lacking meter, suggests that it’s “poetry.” At least It’s not a prose poem.

    It uses a lot of common poetic techniques, like personification. Poems really aren’t “sad,” though they sometimes make us feel that way.

    There are some nice metaphors like “it gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.” I like that one. It also seems to me to contain a kernel of “truth.”

    It’s certainly a “poetic” topic, poetic enough that I was rather amused lately when a blogger suggested that poets should quit writing about poetry.

    My biggest complaint about it that is that it doesn’t “sing” to me, it’s not “lyrical” enough — one thing I require of my favorite poems.

  6. Sorry – I wasn’t intending to shoot the messenger; I was figuring you had a better grasp on what made this poetry. I feel a little better – a bit less the bumpkin – knowing I’m not the only one who is somewhat bewildered by what passes for poetry today.

  7. Loren, check out “What Is Poetry?” I think that states Ashberry’s poetics in a very lyric manner. Thanks for your post on Ashberry.


  8. Sorry about the typo above–“Ashberry” is in my autocorrect. Anyway, here’s the poem.

    What Is Poetry?

    The medieval town, with frieze
    Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

    That came when we wanted it to snow?
    Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

    Ideas, as in this poem? But we
    Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

    The mistress we desire? Now they
    Will have to believe it

    As we believed it. In school
    All the thought got combed out:

    What was left was like a field.
    Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

    Now open them on a thin vertical path.
    It might give us–what?–some flowers soon?

    John Ashbery
    (in Modern American Poetry)

  9. Loren, Did you happen to see that John Ashbery was on the front of the NYT Times Sunday Book Review two weeks ago?

  10. Sorry, but I missed that, John.

    Unfortunately, I seldom read much beside books I pick up at bookstores, blogs, and other online sources.

    I’ll have to see if our local library has a copy of that.

  11. In the most recent (April 9, 2009) issue of The New York Review of Books there’s an article about John Ashbery that I found extremely enlightening. Thanks for typing out “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.” I heard someone say recently that writing can be a form of reading, and vice-versa. While the idea seems not too grounded in reality, isn’t there something about a poem we really like that makes us want to write it out?

  12. I think that Ashbery is greatly overrated as the result of belonging to, and appealing to, coteries of people who value the appearance of cleverness over other things. Apparently, since modernism, the tacit orthodoxy is that every poet if not every poem is a unique linguistic code and must be deciphered as if it were the Rosetta Stone. W. C. Williams suggests (he doesn’t state it) that in a comment that each poem must have a unique form. I sometimes run across pieces of Ashbery’s (and I read them) and they seem either unintelligible or irrelevant to any interest or concern of mine. Just totally irrelevant.

Comments are closed.