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From “Soonest Mended”

September 4, 2017

The summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers,
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

–John Ashberry, 1970

COMMENTARY: John Ashberry, who passed away this week at the age of 90, made a career out of poems “loose….and untidy.” Though his ricocheting surrealism, abruptly switching tracks in meaning, tone, and rhythm, made many readers feel that his poems were inhospitably disjointed, he was capable of unique and surprising effects. As the editor of Art News in New York during the 1970’s, he was interested in the abstract, ‘splotchy’ style of non-traditional art that was in vogue during that time and tried to transfer its aesthetic aims from the canvas to the page. While this resulted in a number of poems that bordered on the unreadable, the effort was important in expanding the scope and range of what was considered poetry and spawned many imitators who drew on his style and influence.

The above excerpt from a much longer poem illustrates that Ashberry could be insightful and moving when writing in his “easier” style. The opening lines evoke the planetary and elemental–the summer season, the fire-and-water star, the rotating earth. These lofty and distant images then transition, in the space of a few lines, to three juxtaposed gestures (robin-in-flight, hair-brush, grimace). Though there is much in the poem that isn’t exactly clear (what “necessary arrangement?” Who’s talking to who?), the contrast between the planetary and the personal leads powerfully to the contrast of the closing lines in which language is “Moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose/ meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.” The idea that words are both meaningful movement and an untidy scattering of chaff nicely sums up the aesthetic approach of a poet who aimed to make use of all the wild totality of the English language, from the vineyard to the dregs.

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From → Elegies

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