John Ashbery1

The Confusion of Poetry / John Ashbery


Americans like things which are clear and make sense.  I share this proclivity.  But poetry is the source of many problems in this area.  Some poets are provocatively vague, others are sophomorically vague, still others are vague because this aspect of reality speaks to them, others just can’t manage a coherent thought, and then there is one who is scrupulously confusing as he believes reality is an experience rather than a description, and that his crafted perplexity can stimulate a ‘visitation’.  Such is John Ashbery.

‘That’s all very well,’ many Americans are wont to think, ‘but I have no time for that.’  Like the American philosopher, William James , they are very much interested in the “cash value” of an idea.  They feel the experience of it can wait for later but generally do not have a slot free in their day timer.  “Call me back in a few months.”  Or, they have tabled all conversation about mystical value, and suffer a sort of hay fever around poetry of any sort and must immediately leave the area.

Enter the translation.

As Google defines it, to translate means to “express the sense of (words or text) in another language”.  And right away, we can see the differences in the mission statements between “translating” and “poetry”.   Which is, as Google defines it, “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative or elevated thought.”

I’ve often wondered if the wonderful simplicity and clarity of Chinese poetry were due to its nature or because I have only read it in translation.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both.  But with it came the notion that people who object to the confusion of modern poetry – might try reading it in translation.

You don’t understand Chinese; can’t make heads or tails of poetry?  Try this poem by Meng Jiao Tr. Graham:

“The thread in the hand of a kind mother
Is the coat on the wanderer’s back.
Before he left she stitched it close
In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?”

Easy enough, huh.  Now try this Rilke from the German:

“His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.”

Clear enough, and enjoyable!  Don’t you think?

But…  it’s probably plain that we can’t tell if the poem in its original language is confusing or not.- since we don’t know the language.  Perhaps the translation is no clearer than the original,  or even worse!  So what I’ve done here is to write us all down a rabbit hole where I am searching in the dark for a turn around where to re-direct this poetry tour bus of mine.

Still, it was an interesting notion and remunerative in that by following this line of thought I fortuitously bumped into what amounts to a good primer about “How to Read John Ashbery” :  In which we find that one of the strategies you might take with poetry is to just scan for those portions which clarify the mind.  It’s like snitching the pepperoni off a pizza.  No one’s watching and wouldn’t mind if you do.  Here’s some entertaining lines popping from the clutter of  John Ashbery’s  Houseboat Days taken from “Daffy Duck in Holly wood”:


…“Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland

Fling Terrace.  He promised he’d get me out of this one,

That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s

Done to me now!  I scarce dare approach me mug’s


Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so de’confit

Are its lineaments – fun, no doubt, for some quack


Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you’d call

Companionable. …”


And here’s a truth widely witnessed everyday:


…”Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island, no,

Not people, comings and goings, more:  mutterings,


The bizarrely but effectively equipped infantries of happy-



Ashbery can get hilarious.  But also serious.  Again, from Houseboat Days:


“… he

Said, that insincerity of reasoning on behalf of one’s

Sincere convictions, true or false in themselves…”


Who says we have to understand everything we read?  I certainly don’t understand everything about a beautiful spring day, or a woman (for sure).  Nevertheless there are these moments.  So perhaps it’s best to think of poetry as a woman, and enjoy the confusion.

Take her out for just the evening.  Enjoy the evening.  Glance at her now and then.  Go ahead, high-grade the pepperoni.


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