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John Ashbery: classmate to Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara

Poems with disjunction of syntax, a prevalence of puns, whimsy and wit

  • The Problem of Anxiety
  • Fifty years have passed
  • since I started living in those dark towns
  • I was telling you about.
  • Well, not much has changed. I still can’t figure out
  • how to get from the post office to the swings in the park. 
  • Apple trees blossom in the cold, not from conviction, 
  • and my hair is the color of dandelion fluff.
  • Suppose this poem were about you - would you
  • put in the things I’ve carefully left out:
  • descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily 
  • people behave toward each other? Naw, that’s
  • all in some book it seems. For you
  • I’ve saved the descriptions of chicken sandwiches, 
  • and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement 
  • from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.
  • Last Month
  • No changes of support—only 
  • Patches of gray, here where sunlight fell. 
  • The house seems heavier 
  • Now that they have gone away.  
  • In fact it emptied in record time.  
  • When the flat table used to result 
  • A match recedes, slowly, into the night. 
  • The academy of the future is  
  • Opening its doors and willing 
  • The fruitless sunlight streams into domes,  
  • The chairs piled high with books and papers.
  • The sedate one is this month’s skittish one  
  • Confirming the property that, 
  • A timeless value, has changed hands. 
  • And you could have a new automobile 
  • Ping pong set and garage, but the thief  
  • Stole everything like a miracle. 
  • In his book there was a picture of treason only  
  • And in the garden, cries and colors.
  • A Worldly Country
  • Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
  • the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
  • not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
  • not the fresh troops that needed freshening up. If it occurred
  • in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel
  • that was OK too. From palace and hovel
  • the great parade flooded avenue and byway
  • and turnip fields became just another highway.
  • Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
  • and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
  • There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet
  • or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.
  • In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon.
  • By evening all was calm again. A crescent moon
  • hung in the sky like a parrot on its perch.
  • Departing guests smiled and called, “See you in church!”
  • For night, as usual, knew what it was doing,
  • providing sleep to offset the great ungluing
  • that tomorrow again would surely bring.
  • As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
  • puzzled me: What had happened, and why?
  • One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
  • and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.
  • So often it happens that the time we turn around in
  • soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
  • And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
  • we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.
John Ashbery

John Ashbery (1927-2017) was an American poet and art critic, and considered one of the most influential poets in contemporary American literature. Ashbery is often associated with the New York School, an informal movement of arts and literature characterized by the surreal and the avant-garde. Other of the School’s prominent members – including Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara – were his classmates at Harvard, and like them, he took a serious interest in art as well as literature. His poems are often imbued with a stream-of-consciousness style and are notoriously characterized by a startling disjunction of syntax, a prevalence of puns, whimsy and wit, and jarring shifts in register and tone. With more than 20 volumes of poetry to his name, Ashbery won a number of top literary prizes in his lifetime, including the Yale Younger Poets Prize (1956), the National Book Award for Poetry (1975) and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry (1986).

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  • The Problem of Anxiety
  • Fifty years have passed
  • since I started living in those dark towns
  • I was telling you about.
  • Well, not much has changed. I still can’t figure out
  • how to get from the post office to the swings in the park. 
  • Apple trees blossom in the cold, not from conviction, 
  • and my hair is the color of dandelion fluff.
  • Suppose this poem were about you - would you
  • put in the things I’ve carefully left out:
  • descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily 
  • people behave toward each other? Naw, that’s
  • all in some book it seems. For you
  • I’ve saved the descriptions of chicken sandwiches, 
  • and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement 
  • from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.
  • Last Month
  • No changes of support—only 
  • Patches of gray, here where sunlight fell. 
  • The house seems heavier 
  • Now that they have gone away.  
  • In fact it emptied in record time.  
  • When the flat table used to result 
  • A match recedes, slowly, into the night. 
  • The academy of the future is  
  • Opening its doors and willing 
  • The fruitless sunlight streams into domes,  
  • The chairs piled high with books and papers.
  • The sedate one is this month’s skittish one  
  • Confirming the property that, 
  • A timeless value, has changed hands. 
  • And you could have a new automobile 
  • Ping pong set and garage, but the thief  
  • Stole everything like a miracle. 
  • In his book there was a picture of treason only  
  • And in the garden, cries and colors.
  • A Worldly Country
  • Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
  • the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
  • not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
  • not the fresh troops that needed freshening up. If it occurred
  • in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel
  • that was OK too. From palace and hovel
  • the great parade flooded avenue and byway
  • and turnip fields became just another highway.
  • Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
  • and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
  • There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet
  • or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.
  • In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon.
  • By evening all was calm again. A crescent moon
  • hung in the sky like a parrot on its perch.
  • Departing guests smiled and called, “See you in church!”
  • For night, as usual, knew what it was doing,
  • providing sleep to offset the great ungluing
  • that tomorrow again would surely bring.
  • As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
  • puzzled me: What had happened, and why?
  • One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
  • and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.
  • So often it happens that the time we turn around in
  • soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
  • And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
  • we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.
John Ashbery

John Ashbery (1927-2017) was an American poet and art critic, and considered one of the most influential poets in contemporary American literature. Ashbery is often associated with the New York School, an informal movement of arts and literature characterized by the surreal and the avant-garde. Other of the School’s prominent members – including Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara – were his classmates at Harvard, and like them, he took a serious interest in art as well as literature. His poems are often imbued with a stream-of-consciousness style and are notoriously characterized by a startling disjunction of syntax, a prevalence of puns, whimsy and wit, and jarring shifts in register and tone. With more than 20 volumes of poetry to his name, Ashbery won a number of top literary prizes in his lifetime, including the Yale Younger Poets Prize (1956), the National Book Award for Poetry (1975) and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry (1986).

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