Sunday, March 05, 2006

John Ashbery's This Room

John Ashbery is my favorite contemporary poet. This Room is the first poem from his 2000 volume Your Name Here; this is the poem in full:
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
Ashbery is a strange poet: many of his poems feel like dreams. "Stanza" -- the poetry equivalent of a paragraph -- is an Italian word that means "room," so Ashbery suggests that anything he talks about in his poetry is likely to be a dream version of a real thing. A major theory about dreams (from Jung I think) is that everything in the dream represents a part of the dreamer, so Ashbery identifies all the feet as his and the portrait of the dog as himself. In a dream, as in Ashbery's poetry, you can barely tell what is going on, though what you glimpse always seems very important: what he says in this poem is true of his style generally: "Something shimmers, something is hushed up." The problem with seeing poetry as a kind of dream is that a dream is an essentially private experience; John Stuart Mill said that while prose is written to communicate with others, the poet speaks to himself, and is "overheard" by readers, who are not directly a part of what is going on. Ashbery is thinking of this as he offers us a strange statement on food which seems important to him but means nothing to us, and then wonders why he bothers. The poem sets up the volume, in which we glimpse, but never quite see, the personal experience contained in the poems.


jennifert72 said...

hi geoff
what a beautiful poem. it definately has the quality of a dream. i particularly like the part about the quail!
interesting entry.

Anonymous said...

I like it better when you recite it. It is a very pretty poem, but not my favorite of his. My favorite is the one you are writing on in your dissertation, I bet you didn't know that.

Anonymous said...

I like this piece. I can see why you enjoy him.

I had forgotten that poetry was supposed to be 'overheard.' It changes things for me. Knowing that reminds me of why poetry feels so intimate.

"Something shimmers, something is hushed up" is particuarly appealing to me.

Geoff Klock said...

jennifert72: looking over the poem today I noticed that the macaroni-quail line, like "Something shimmers, something is hushed up," points to Ashbery's poetry generally: strange, exotic bits pop up in swathes of common language; he says this himself in his poem And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name: "Now one must / Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed, / Dull-sounding ones."

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Geoff Klock said...

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