On the cover of this pocket-size edition of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the poet stands in a doorway. He wears the somehow simultaneously ill-advised and completely stylish ensemble of a half-unbuttoned patterned shirt and tight beltless pants. Looking closer, the doorway seems to open not to a room or to the outside but to a closet: on a shelf behind him there is a pot or urn, and the flatness of the photograph makes it seem a bit as if he is wearing it on his head, like a bizarre hat. He is looking straight out of the front of the book, with a direct, slightly furrowed expression. He is about to smile beneath his full mustache. Something strange is just about to happen.
When I bought this copy of Self-Portrait, in 1993, I had just begun a doctoral program at UC Berkeley. Full of a desire, secret to everyone including myself, to live a creative life, I was skeptical about, but also attracted to, poetry. Now, holding this same book in my hand, I remember that time, and how Ashbery’s poems at first didn’t seem to make any sense, or go anywhere, or do anything. I felt angry reading them, as if I were in the presence of a giant literary hoax that I had the choice either to sanction or to condemn. The situation felt profoundly ethical to me. The poems offended my sense of what poetry, and art, should do.
I remember how I carried into the reading of the book all the notions I had gathered, from my education and upbringing, about art. And also how I felt, despite my anger and resistance, like the poems somehow were addressed to me. That the poet not only needed to say these things but also needed someone to hear them. Something huge and important was at last beginning. What I thought was my principled resistance to meaninglessness was really a fear of, and attraction to, a new life.
Here is the first stanza of the poem that changed my mind about Ashbery, and therefore about contemporary American poetry, and I guess therefore my life:
The One Thing That Can Save America
Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place names central?
Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Book Farm?
As they concur with a rush at eye level
Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough
Thank you, no more thank you.
And they come on like scenery mingled with darkness
The damp plains, overgrown suburbs,
Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.
“Is anything central?” Because of the title, this is presumably a question about America, about the one thing that can save it, though how or even from what we do not know. Someone seems to be worried about something, something important yet elusive. The poem seems to be guided in a distracted way by the notion of centrality, searching for it in odd places, unsystematically. Is the one thing that can save America, whatever is “central,” maybe located somehow in these otherwise unremarkable places, Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Book Farm? Or maybe in the names themselves?
The names rush into the mind of the speaker as he sees them. They “concur with a rush at eye level,” as if he is moving in a car or a train. “Concur” stands out to me: it’s odd here, and I’m sure I’ve never heard it used in a visual sense. The way he sees the towns and their names suggests to him an idea, reflected in that word “concur.” “Concur” has a tone of formality, and seems to carry with it the idea of independence along with agreement. The names don’t completely merge together, nor remain completely separate.
Everything is all mixed together, and he cannot discern what is central, what is important, which makes him tired. It is not only his eyes but eyes in general, all of our eyes, “which have had enough / Thank you, no more thank you.” I feel a collective exhaustion, a desire for all of our eyes to close.
The poem refuses to directly answer its own initial question. The poem is drifting, and so is the speaker. But the poem does also feel as if something is holding it together, not an answer, but the question itself, the one that begins the poem, and then is asked again more specifically—“Are place names central?” That search for centrality echoes through the whole poem.
The elements of the poem collect together, remaining distinct, accumulating into a feeling that is palpable but impossible to summarize. It feels, in this first stanza, something like a mixture of nostalgia, melancholy, dread, and peacefulness. These feelings are contradictory, yet they coexist in his mind and mood, and therefore in us as we read the poem.
When I first encountered Ashbery’s poems, they pushed me into an unfamiliar, exciting, troubling space. I wanted to be there, in that place, so much, and also resisted it. The more I allowed myself to attentively drift, to let go of a certain way of reading, in order to allow a new way to emerge, the more excited and uncomfortable I felt.
Reading his poems required me to give up on looking for a certain kind of meaning that I was used to locating. In my reading, I had always been quick to find the main point, the central idea, which made me one of those annoying students who was always first to raise his hand. Ashbery, and poetry in general, was asking something different of me, a different kind of attention.
I think this is one reason why Ashbery is often thought of as difficult or elusive. It can seem to readers either like there is nothing there or that they are missing something. “The poem is sad, because it wants to be yours, and cannot,” he writes in another poem, “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” which begins:
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.
That sums up how many people feel reading poetry. A few years ago, I participated in a program called Letters in the Mail, run by the writer Stephen Elliott through his website The Rumpus. To subscribe, you pay five dollars each month, and then every few weeks you receive a copy of a letter written by a different author. I had written a letter about being a poet, along with a new poem. I included my mailing address, and some subscribers sent letters back in response. Here is what one person wrote in a letter back to me:
Poetry has always been a drifting experience, like it’s floating in the wind and I’m watching it, trying to grasp it back, to hold it, and look at it, and comprehend it. It is always out of reach. I keep thinking I’ll understand or love it with the next poem I read. That I only need one more and then I’ll “get” it. Alas, this seems untrue for me.
I love this letter because it directly and movingly encapsulates the mixture of longing and confusion that many people feel in relation to poetry. As she says, she feels there is something she needs to “get,” though by putting this in quotation marks she seems to know that this very attitude about poetry is, in some way she cannot quite discern, problematic, maybe even the entire problem.
This drifting feeling she describes so well is what a reader can experience, and might have an instinct to resist. When we release ourselves from the need to boil the poem down to a single meaning or theme, the mind can move in a dreamlike, associative way. This associative movement in poetry can at first feel disorienting, but it is actually quite close to the way parts of our minds, unbeknownst to our conscious selves, constantly function, simultaneously attentive to the outside world, but also thinking, processing, half dreaming.
In his book Conversations at the Frontier of Dreaming, the psychologist Thomas H. Ogden calls this constant and natural state of the mind “reverie,” where “playing and creativity of every sort are born; where wit and charm germinate before they find their way (as if out of nowhere) into a conversation, a poem, a gesture, or a facial expression.” We become consciously aware of this reverie, a dreaming-while-awake, only rarely: maybe in certain particular situations, such as in a psychoanalytic session, or when we realize we are daydreaming. But, as Ogden writes:
The internal conversation known as dreaming is no more an event limited to the hours of sleep than the existence of stars is limited to the hours of darkness. Stars become visible at night when their luminosity is no longer concealed by the glare of the sun. Similarly, the conversation with ourselves that in sleep we experience as dreaming continues unabated and undiluted in our waking life.
Reverie is just beneath the surface of our moment-to-moment existence. It is our brain’s way of processing experience before it moves to a place of availability. It’s where we have been when we suddenly realize we have somehow been driving in complete safety for a few minutes, without remembering any of it. Or when we lose focus in the middle of a conversation, a meeting, a class. It is something that is always going on, while our conscious minds are active and engaged.
We usually are not aware of this process, but it is crucial to how we make sense of the world, and how we understand our place in it. It is, as Ogden writes, “at the very core of what it means to be alive as a human being.”
Poetry is a constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming. It is a mechanism by which the essential state of reverie can be made available to our conscious minds. By means of the poem, we can enter this state of reverie with all our faculties alert and intact. Poems make possible a conscious entry into the preconscious mind, a lucid dreaming.
Poems are there, waiting, whenever we feel we need our minds to think in a different way. We can go into the poem whenever we like, as many times as we want, with full alertness. We can be aware of reverie while it is happening, and can hold on to that experience in the poem. Reading the poem allows us to achieve, consciously, a particular kind of very precious awareness.
So often in school or textbooks the vital importance of this state of reverie created by poetry is never addressed. This can leave a reader feeling as if the dreamlike state a poem can create is somehow a flaw, rather than an effect to be treasured for its own sake. In this way, the very desired effect of poetry becomes something a reader can criticize herself for.
The subscriber’s letter to me continued:
I wondered about telling you how poems keep their mystery as I read them. I wondered if I should tell you I own poetry books, but cannot seem to read them. I thought more about if I should tell you that I’m not sure what the poem you sent to me means. If I should tell you I sat on my bed one night and read the poem aloud to myself, swatting at the lines buzzing around my head, eventually laying it down to go to sleep, putting your poem to sleep as well.
It makes me wonder if I’m “doing it” wrong, poetry, that is. It makes me long for a literature class again where poems were discussed and analyzed. Maybe that would make me love them.
I want to write her back with some useful words. Mostly what I would want to tell her is that if the poem gave her that “drifting experience,” it is doing what it is supposed to do. I would like to say to her that this experience she describes is precious, rare, virtually extinct even, and that she has everything she needs already, and is starting to do it exactly right on her own. And that the preservation of this drifting experience is the purpose and promise of poetry.
This essay is excerpted from Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder, out this week from Harper Collins.
The author most recently of Sun Bear and Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder is an Associate Professor in the MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California, and Editor at Large at Wave Books.