Friday, October 08, 2004

The First -- John Ashbery

I read poetry because I want to be moved by it. I want it to change my world: to shake things up, to make me ask questions I never thought to ask before, to reshape the framework through which I view reality, to challenge, in fact, my definition of reality. I want to struggle with it, to hate it, to love it, to sleep with the book which last night I threw against the wall. For me, reading and writing poetry is a passionate endeavor. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.

I believe poetry has meaning and relevance to my everyday existence. When Wallace Stevens expresses frustration with his perceived inability to describe the reality of an experience, or John Ashbery interweaves conscious and unconscious thought in text form, I too wonder if I can ever properly verbalize how I think or feel or how much of my identity is divided between the conscious and unconscious being. This affects how I relate to people, how I write, how I live. Poetry is an entry into my own mind. Poetry makes me wonder.

Do you understand? Do you feel passionate about the expansiveness and relevance of poetry?

Share your passion here. I will post a poem every week and comment on how it affects me: what memories or feelings it unleashes, what conclusions I draw from it, or simply my struggle with trying to figure out what it means. Feel free to write how the poem affects you. I ask only that you write with respect, regardless of how you feel about the poem.

In an interview with John Tranter in 1985, John Ashbery expressed his desire that readers "come to terms" with a poem on their own, without commentary from the author. I share this view. So for the first poem, I am posting John Ashbery's "The Sea," a poem from his collection _Can You Hear, Bird_, published in 1995:

The Sea

We carry our anxiety about the land with us
when we leave the land to travel overseas.
She shouts: "This is the dimmest
thing you ever did! In all time
was never such lurching, so much rubbing of the chin."

It's true: I'd have deserted the land of my forefathers
a dozen times before if I'd thought
I could get away with it.
And a triangular shadow whose apex is my toe
comes to tell me of my rights, warning me
of perjury, in some books the most serious crime of all.

Even the crinkled stars in the meadow
cannot look the other way, forcing me
into my constrained idea of myself.
I must go out with the light, and some day
someone will see through and love me.
I look down at these asters, unsteady,
unsure of what to grab. The tuneless sing to me.

What grabs me first is the initial idea: that the anxiety one feels in one place is not left behind simply by moving to another place. Even on the sea, one worries about the land. It reminds me about what I leave behind when I travel, especially my dog. She is safe in a wonderful kennel, but even as I am enjoying a relaxing getaway, I worry about how she is doing.

More importantly, it brings to mind my own experience of learning something it took me years to learn: you can't run away from your problems. They follow you! Sounds cliche, doesn't it? But still so true. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had lived and worked in several states, and had moved to Japan. I always hoped that a fresh start meant a fresh me. In the end, I always ended up being the same person with the same complications. It was in Japan that I finally realized that personality, difficulties, strengths and weaknesses, and personal history were not about geography. They're about me.

What does the speaker mean by saying we "carry" our anxiety? Is this to imply that we take it with us, cradling it in our arms, refusing to let it go even though we could? Do we keep it close to our chests to remind us of what we have been through, perhaps afraid that we wouldn't be able to recognize ourselves without it? Do we think of it as our child, to be nurtured and fed? Is this why "she" seems to criticize the speaker, claiming "this is the dimmest / thing you ever did?" Perhaps "she" is someone who is a freer spirit, safe in her identity and worryless self-worth.

I respond to this stanza with my own anxiety, because it forces me to wonder how much of my fears and worries are my own creation, kept by me out of a false sense of protection: if I worry about something, it means I am alert to the possibility of it happening, therefore I can perhaps prevent it. I don't even think this is good logic. But it bothers me to think that at least some of my fear is unnecessary, and that I might have the power to change it. Feels like a serious responsibility.

All right, I haven't moved out of the first stanza, but that's enough to think about for one day. I am going to let this poem live in me for a day or two, then comment some more.

How about you?

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