Category Archives: poetry

The 10 Best John Ashbery Poems

Picked by Karin Roffman, author of ‘The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life.’

Source: The 10 Best John Ashbery Poems

By Karin Roffman

John Ashbery, who turns 90 next month, published Commotion of the Birds, his 28th volume of poetry, last October. Choosing the 10 “best” volumes from this vast and remarkable oeuvre would be a challenge. Choosing the 10 “best” poems seems well-nigh impossible.

Recently, however, a student asked me: “Which John Ashbery poem would you read first?” Her question offered an approach to this assignment that I particularly liked. So I have decided to pick 10 Ashbery poems that I suggest reading early and often.

I have not ordered the poems chronologically; instead, I’ve arranged them loosely following the arc of a day. In writing the biography of Ashbery’s early life, I constantly returned to these poems for they remind me of how the poet is drawn to familiar moments when we sleep, dream, eat, think, feel bored, see movies, fear death, and fall in love. Taken together, these 10 poems create the experience of a life—from the mundane to the profound—a reading path that I hope will send you back to his poems for more.

  1. “Wakefulness” (Wakefulness, 1998)

This poem begins at the end of a dream, in that moment when one is awake but still partially in the dream. As a young poet, Ashbery found this sensation conducive to writing and kept paper and a pen by his bed. (He wrote “The Painter” in this state.) As the speaker awakens, “[L]ittle by little the idea of the true way returned to me.” The statement sounds like a restoration of consciousness, but, in fact, the speaker is tunneling deeper into his dream-like mood because its sense of unreality sharpens his perception. In this altered state, he has a vision: “A gavotte of dust-motes / came to replace my seeing.” These musical, dancing dust specks are beautiful, and we can suddenly imagine this indoor sight to be as sublimely lovely and inspiring as Wordsworth’s golden daffodils.

  1. “Adam Snow” (April Galleons, 1987) [Library of America Volume I, page 819]

Ashbery grew up in upstate New York near Lake Ontario, in an area full of dramatic shifts in weather and a lot of snow, which he observed closely in a diary he kept for four years in high school. I choose this poem less for its climate references than for its clear expression of an idea Ashbery first conveyed quite simply in these daily diary entries, the notion that the ordinary and the extraordinary exist side-by-side in our mind. “Adam Snow” shifts between these states of thinking, and it also demonstrates how we constantly move between them without even noticing: “That you may be running through thistles one moment / And across a sheet of thin ice the next and not be aware / of any difference, only that you have been granted an extension.”

  1. “They Knew What They Wanted” (Planisphere, 2008)

The poem is a cento, a form made up entirely of quotations. This one consists exclusively of movie titles that begin with “They,” a list both absurd and surprisingly coherent. Ashbery wrote the poem a decade ago during a period when he was indulging in Turner Classic Movies and busy making collages, something he had started doing for fun in college. These whimsical pieces look like visual poems; this cento is also a kind of poetic collage with so many different movie references stuck together. A movie buff from an early age (“The Lonedale Operator” recounts his very first movie-going experience as a kindergartner), Ashbery’s delight in film titles, character names, witty dialogue and even minor plot points has infiltrated his poetry since he was eight.

  1. “Soonest Mended” (The Double Dream of Spring, 1970) [Library of America Volume I, pages 184-86]

The title is a shortened proverb: “Least Said, Soonest Mended.” A young John Ashbery heard it said by his strict Victorian grandparents, and he learned to keep things to himself. Following this precept, the poem avoids making a direct complaint, and the speaker says “we” and not “I.” The poem is, however, an explanation of what it feels like to be an outsider; the first 35 lines describe struggling to grow up and fit in, being conscious of not belonging. Then the poem offers an understated and moving summary of the opening section: “These then were some hazards of the course.” Ashbery once described this poem as his “one-size-fits-all confessional poem,” which is a way of saying that the poem is aware of both the author’s own childhood miseries—growing up gay and artistic in a family and small town that valued none of those things—and that every person has his or her own story, their own “hazards of the course.”

  1. “But What Is the Reader To Make of This?” (A Wave, 1984) [Library of America Volume I, page 742]

Poetry illuminates the shadowy world of the “interior life,” but its finest feature may be that it has no use at all: “this afternoon / Those delicious few words spread around like jam / Don’t matter.” Of Ashbery’s many ars poeticas (including “What is Poetry”), this one is my favorite.

  1. “Syringa” (Houseboat Days, 1977) [Library of America Volume I, pages 534-36]

“Syringa” turns the story of Orpheus’s grief into a familiar and devastating tale. In the classic myth, Eurydice suddenly dies and Orpheus uses his exceptional lyric gifts to convince the gods to let him bring her back from the underworld, but when he looks back to make sure she’s still behind him—something the gods tell him he must not do—he loses her again forever. The tragic tale has inspired many artists since Ovid to retell it, but in Ashbery’s unsentimental version, Orpheus is just a guy who doesn’t get that his problem is insoluble, even with the help of art, gods or heroism. Ashbery writes: “Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade; / She would have even if he hadn’t turned around.” Eurydice is the past, and the past always disappears. How could Orpheus forget something so obvious? Ashbery’s reading reminds us of the pedestrian and brutal facts of time, which no one escapes.

  1. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975) [Library of America Volume I, pages 474-87]

While perusing Ashbery’s class notes from college, I found a reference to the 15th-century painter, Francesco Parmigianino—the subject of this intimate and luminous poem written 30 years later—misspelled in the margin. Ashbery quickly forgot about this early encounter, and years later rediscovered the painter’s work as if for the first time. It seems fitting that a poem about the entangling of life and art—or, as Ashbery concisely puts it, “life englobed”—would have a misremembered origin. The poet examines Parmigianino’s process of creation and his own, recognizing that as an artist makes something new from life, he also loses something in the process: “Often he finds / He has omitted the thing he started out to say / In the first place.” The residue of these absent words still exists through art, however, and provides a catalyst for the artist and audience to rediscover life and self.

  1. “The New Spirit” (Three Poems, 1972) [Library of America Volume I, pages 247-80]

Ensconced in the “moonlight,” the speaker reflects on all he has thought and felt before this moment, and he finds new confidence in the possibility that this waning hour actually offers him a chance for renewal. He realizes that the questions he has been asking repeatedly about life ever since “the fuzzy first thought that gets started in you,” are, in fact, the right ones, and that he must continue. Almost quivering with excitement, he begins “a new journey.”

  1. “Breezeway” (Breezeway, 2015)

The poem imagines a bridge—“a breezeway”—to the world beyond this one. It literalizes the idea of life after death and, in doing so, makes the extraordinary seem ordinary. Those in this world are full of thoughts of the next, but how does one get there? You walk, of course. But why would one ever want to leave this world? This life has comic book heroes and weather and amusing misunderstandings, but it is often also rather dull and meaningless. Batman is bored watching mere mortals try to get through their day. Yet even those moments of tedium can have a transcendent rhythm and spirit, which Batman, for all his godlike qualities, just can’t quite perceive.

  1. “Some Trees” (Some Trees, 1956) [Library of America Volume I, page 26]

Written in 1948 when Ashbery was only 21 and a senior at Harvard College, this brief lyric has everything that his later, much longer, poems will advance. It is a love poem that never mentions love directly, but a feeling of being in love infuses the way the speaker sees, feels, and thinks about everything. It makes him feel both small and big, a tiny piece of a greater universe, but nonetheless connected to a world full of mystery and grandeur. A sense of the universe comes from gazing up at those huge trees from the ground while in love and remembering the immensity of that experience of feeling and thinking.


Karin Roffman’s The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life is the first in-depth biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. The narrative follows Ashbery, who was born in 1927, up to 1955, when W.H. Auden awarded Ashbery’s debut collection, Some Trees, the Yale Younger Poets prize. In addition to providing insight into Ashbery’s personal life and work, Roffman provides wonderful analysis of his poems. Roffman picks 10 of the best Ashbery poems. Links to the poems are provided.


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Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means

Source: Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means – The Washington Post

Sara Holbrook, the author of books of poetry for children, teens and adults, as well as professional books for teachers, wrote a piece on this blog earlier this year that was, to say the least, jarring, if not entirely unexpected by those who have been paying attention to how poorly many standardized tests are constructed. That post, “Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems,” started this way:

When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR Test), I had a flash of panic — oh, no! Not smart enough. Such a dunce. My eyes glazed over. I checked to see if anyone was looking. The questions began to swim on the page. Waves of insecurity. My brain in full spin.

[Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems]

Now Holbrook is back with a piece about why she never tells a student what a poem means. Why is that a big deal? It is in direct contrast to a good deal of literature instruction today, which is designed to ensure that students take away not their own meaning but what a standardized test would consider correct.

Holbrook also visits schools and speaks at educator conferences worldwide, with her partner Michael Salinger, providing teacher and classroom workshops on writing and oral presentation skills. Her first novel, “The Enemy: Detroit 1954,” was just released.

By Sara Holbrook

Seems fitting that April is poetry month, a season brimming with blossoming possibilities and longer days. Like jolly jonquils, in April poets are released from our winter hibernation, we shed our black attire and start popping up at readings, sprouting bright colors and (presumably) speaking in stanzas. Not sure how April came to be poetry month. Maybe because at the time of its designation, April didn’t already belong to women’s history, colon cancer awareness, or toenail fungus.

Of course as most of the educated world knows, April mostly belongs to taxes and school testing. Still, poets who chew pencils and chase cursors every day all year wait for this month for a little acknowledgment. It’s not too bad of a deal, really. The five-paragraph-essay is still waiting in the wings for its month.

The poem below was not written as a poetry month challenge. I wrote it while sitting in the back of a summer poetry-writing workshop. Mostly, I was biding my time for my turn to present. The instructor began by asking us to write the words, “I remember” and write for five minutes, not letting our pen leave the page (actually a writing exercise conceived by Natalie Goldberg, I later found out). If we got stuck, we were to write, “I remember” again and keep writing.

But I’ve always been a little ornery. I began with “I don’t remember,” and went from there. The image that came to mind was of my mother and the big family secret the entire neighborhood knew. Mom drank too much and took too many pills. I don’t think she would mind my telling this story now since she was sober for the last seven years of her life, and she was really proud of that. But believe me, we had our moments over the years.

A poem is a snapshot in time. Not an entire movie. A focused moment. I do remember the time she brought me brownies as an apology, but I can’t for the life of me remember what she was apologizing for. Memory is a pegboard punched with holes. The older I get, the bigger the holes become.

Still, I remember the brownies, the hug, my forced smile.




I don’t remember the first time,

how it started

or when.

But I remember

the night you brought me brownies

and said

it would never happen again.


I remember,

your hair was longer then

and how your eyes swam over to mine.

I remember,

my smile stuck to my teeth.

I knew it wasn’t the last time.


My eyes were sealed with tears

and it was hard for them to wake,

but that didn’t seem to matter.

We hugged.

And the brownies tasted great.

©1997 sara holbrook “I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult,” Boyds Mills Press


Forty years after the brownies were delivered to my bedside, four or five years after the writing and publication of the poem, I was visiting a school in the rural Midwest. It was April, and in preparation for the poet/author visit, kids had been asked to respond to one of my poems with: one their own poems, a hand-drawn picture, or a paragraph. What a display!

Hundreds of responses were posted in the hallways. There was an entire wall in the foyer devoted to my poem, “The Dog Ate My Homework.” Middle-school kids love to laugh and the student poems told tall tales of dogs, goats, and chickens munching on math problems and swallowing spelling words. One, as I remember, involved no eating but did reference cat pee.

But down the hall, around the corner, out of the florescent glare of the reception area, on the tiled wall by the room where (before inclusion) they used to keep “those kids,” I found Paul’s interpretation of my poem, “Remember.” While his classmates were having fun with poetry, he was evidencing his understanding that all of life is not a sit-com.

Paul was 11 years old when he wrote this. I know. I asked. When students are 11, the topic of sex doesn’t come up in the classroom. Teachers and parents make sure of it. What Paul brought to the text of my poem is background knowledge he had acquired somewhere other than school. We can only speculate.

Paul and I are both more than 25 years older now. Still, that spring day is sealed in my memory. I visited two schools, Paul’s in the morning and then I moved on at lunch break. But I took time to make a big deal out of Paul’s response, taking it to the office to have it photocopied (era before cellphone cameras). The secretary read it and wearily sighed, “Yeah, there’s a lot of that ’round here.” I took it to the guidance office. I took it to the vice principal. I don’t know if Paul, age 11, ever got the help he needed. It haunts me.

But one thing I do know, I am not the one to tell Paul what the poem “Remember” is about. Paul knew and probably still knows what this poem means. In my mind, this is not even my poem anymore. It belongs to Paul, age 11.

Famed educator, guru, and overall smart person Louise Rosenblatt wisely distinguishes between interpreting expository writing (journalism, nonfiction) and aesthetic writing. “A novel or a poem or a play remains merely inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols.” The reader creates meaning, I heard her explain in a talk she gave at the National Council of Teachers of English in November 2004 at the no-nonsense age of 100. She was peeking over the podium giving a roomful of academics what-for, explaining that the meaning of a poem floats somewhere between the page and the reader’s mind because each reader brings a unique experience to the piece.

A few months ago I wrote an essay, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which I questioned those of unknown academic distinction who anonymously compose proficiency test questions. Many teachers wrote to tell me that they too are unable to answer these vaguely written test questions being used to evaluate their students. One teacher reported that her kids had to endure 17 days of testing this year. Considering there are only about 20 days of school in a month and that every test requires preparation on the devices and manner of testing, that’s a lot of lost instructional time.

Parents wrote. I did a few television interviews and radio programs. It was my 15 minutes. Additionally, I took some heat from a (very) few academics who jumped to inform me that authors do not own the meaning of a poem, it is up to literary critics to make this determination. Good grief.

It was not my intent to kick off an argument on of the relative merit of learned literary analysis. I’ll leave that to those with letters after their names. But friends, parents, educators, learned folks, please remember, middle-schoolers are not just short college sophomores. They are not lit majors. These are kids like Paul. Kids who are often grappling with a world of unseen and sometimes unspeakable challenges.

As teachers and parents, our main goal is to get them to love learning, to be curious, and grow to understand the difference between fact and fiction. Writing poetry can help with this by the way, poets are into facts, and not just in April. But how can testing help with this? Geez, Louise! Proficiency test questions don’t even have to be fact-based!

One industrious Advanced Placement student wrote to walk me through two of my poems and each STAAR standardized test question, dutifully explaining how to determine which of the right answers on a multiple choice test is the most right. Clearly he has mastered the game of analyzing minutia. A smart, articulate kid; I found his dedication to compliance, well, disconcerting.

“Big can’t get you if small’s got you,” civil rights leader Rep. Elijah Cummings said recently, quoting the wisdom of his sharecropper father.

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I worry we are raising a generation of students who view success as the ability to focus on marginal minutia while (too often) missing the big ideas in a piece of writing. Worse, children are learning to disregard their own instincts, their histories, their cultural references by devoting themselves to predetermined interpretations. When we tell students what to think, we short sheet their own thought processes.

What if, in that long ago April, some test had told Paul his interpretation was wrong?

I stick to my contention that if a child reads a poem or a story about a red house, it is fair to test the kid’s reading mastery by asking, what color was that house? Once we ask, why did the author paint the house red, we’ve slid off the pedagogical sidewalk. It may be a good question to stimulate rich discussion, but the answer, particularly when it comes to poetry, is not a right or wrong equation. Deciding why the house is red is where we meet, reader and writer as the reader brings a unique experience to the interpretation. This is how we nurture thinking in students.

Besides, if the author hasn’t told us why the house is red, we just can’t know. In fact, the author’s perception of her intent in writing, of the very meaning of her own poem, may in fact change over time.

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Oh, Mom

[Editor’s note: inspired by a neighbor’s actual event, as reported on Facebook. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers reading this.]

Oh, Mom,
I did it again, like when I was ten
And then, in the middle of the night
In panic and fright I committed the sin
Of turning your bedding off-white.

Oh, Mom,
I was queasy then and I am again,
And once more I stand at your door.
Too much to drink, this time I think.
I should’ve stopped instead of saying, “More.”

Oh, Mom,
As I now look in, the light is very thin.
I hear the roar of a brain-jarring snore.
Is that you or Dad? Oh, my achy breaky head.
I pitch in too soon, onto the bed — ka-boom!

Oh, Mom,
I will try again. Oh, where to begin?
I did not mean to do or repeat anew,
But my head went in, like when I was ten,
And turned white into red, white, and “Ouuh!”

Oh, Mom,
I did it again, like I did back then,
When, in the middle of the night,
In panic and fright I committed the sin
Of turning your bedding off-white.

–by David E. Booker

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A bit of old news: “Poetry and politics don’t mix”

For S.C.’s Poet Laureate, An Inauguration Poem Without An Inaugural Audience



South Carolina's Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth snubbed at recent GOP governor's inauguration.

South Carolina’s Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth snubbed at recent GOP governor’s inauguration.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley starts her second term today. But absent from the inaugural ceremony will be a long-standing tradition: a poem read by the state’s poet laureate.

State officials say they cut the two-minute poem for time, but some residents suspect it was the mention of slavery that got it tossed.

Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth has written poems for South Carolina’s past three inaugurations. She describes those efforts as “safe.”

The poems leaned heavily on nature and animals.

But this year, she says, she was moved watching the protests across the country ignited by the deaths of unarmed black men. She wanted to incorporate some of that subject matter into her writing.

She took to Facebook and asked South Carolina’s residents their opinions and asked them to tell her what they thought she should write about.

“Some of them were quite beautiful,” she said of the posts she got.

Many suggested that the sensitive topic of slavery was the reason the poem was snubbed.

The rest of the story at:

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Holiday Reprise: “Santa’s Setback”

This is a note to tell you
that Wall Street has taken away
the things I really needed:
my workshop, my reindeer, my sleigh.

I now make my rounds on a jackass;
he’s old and crippled and slow.
So, if you don’t see me come Christmas,
I’ll be out on my ass in the snow.

Santa on a jackass

Santa mounts a new challenge.

[Editor’s note: original appeared in Dec. 2012, but brought back because it still applies. And because I can.]

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Filed under cartoon by author, Christmas, poetry, Santa Claus, satire

Silly Saturday: “Santa’s Setback”

This is a note to tell you
that Wall Street has taken away
the things I really needed:
my workshop, my reindeer, my sleigh.

I now make my rounds on a jackass;
he’s old and crippled and slow.
So, if you don’t see me come Christmas,
I’ll be out on my ass in the snow.

Santa on a jackass

Santa mounts a new challenge.


Filed under cartoon by author, Christmas, poetry, Silly Saturday

Liquid mirror

So many puddles. /
Each rain drop muddles the world. /
Liquid, dark mirror.

[Editor’s note: This Haiku was a response to one found on another blog. However, when I reblogged the original and my response. Neither one came out very well. Seems the reblogging technology doesn’t comprehend haiku. Anyway, here is my haiku.]

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