Poetry for the Masses?

As we pull into the high platform station today, I’m thinking about the morning ahead of all of us, and, oddly enough, poetry. April is National Poetry Month but the tragic events in the city to which I travel nearly every day have eclipsed all of our thought in recent days. We’ve put on shock and sadness which will wear for a while: certainly every time we recall those who’ve lost loved ones, and others who will struggle through painful rehabilitation learning, as our President said, “to live again.”

My offering today will be a small and random step, not even forward. Just over a week ago I threw John Ashbery’s new book, Quick Question[i] , into my backpack. It appeared to be a quick read, given the title, and I hoped it held poetry that would refresh one’s outlook, that can re-do the frame of an entire day.

I’ll leave it to the professionals to critique this particular work. Suffice to say Mr Ashbery is so well known, so well published that calling him “highly decorated” feels incomplete. He’s the author of more than 20 books, has won a Pulitzer Prize, and received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama. He’s won two Guggenheim Fellowships and has been both a Fullbright Scholar and a MacArthur Fellow. The list goes on.

But I confess that I’ve struggled with these poems. There’s not one I really understand. Strange phrases appear throughout them all, justifying what the dust jacket advertises: “elusiveness,” and “mysterious promise.” Examples:

“In all my years as a pedestrian serving juice to guests, it never occurred to me thoughtfully to imagine how a radish feels.” (first line of This Economy.) From the middle of Puff Piece, “ Well, Sarge, count me out. I’m heading for a clean-named place like Wisconsin, and mad as a jack-o’-lantern, will get there without help and nosy proclivities.” The ending of Bacon Grabbers: “I had to go to my sister-in-law’s for the long weekend. Does her address seem relevant? We had a laughing machine in the basement.”

Despite the facts that I serve juice, grew up near Wisconsin, and can almost imagine what a “laughing machine” might look like, I still, to use an old phrase, don’t “get” these poems. However, there is a line in the middle of one, in the middle of the book, that I will take forward. I liked it before this awful week and as I prepare to walk past the spot where a man died in the line of duty, it means something more. In Not Beyond All Conjecture Ashbery writes,

“…We live in a museum of helpful objects,

leaning toward the accomplishment of a small,

complicated task, like sailors in rigging.

Something no American has yet achieved.”

 Our living places are filled with helpful objects, I hope; objects that remind us of our past and pull us forward into the future. Recently we have honored those who have “leaned into the rigging,” who work toward many “small, complicated tasks.”As we watch, they, and others to come, will prove Ashbery’s last line untrue. Some brave Americans, and many others all around the world will, indeed, achieve.


[i] Ashbery, John. Quick question: new poems. New York: Ecco, 2012.


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