—for Mark Kerstetter, who introduced me to this poem
Ashbery, in his poem Soonest Mended, seems to have had in mind the old proverb “least said, soonest mended,” when he wrote of Ingres’ damsel in distress:
And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was consideringMy workaday world requires me to read fine print in enormous quantities, my mind focused on subject matter dry as dust. When I am “off duty,” I rebel. In those hours, when I come to a poem, book, or piece of art or music, I want to dwell first in the world of sense impressions and see where they might lead. Later, perhaps, I’ll look for information or, heaven forfend, analysis, that might put me further inside the piece. But if I start there, I quickly feel I’m not at play, but still at work.
The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though
wondering whether forgetting
The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.
Perhaps that’s why I’m so taken with the poetry of John Ashbery. With Ashbery, I find it essential to let go of any preconceived notion of meaning. While hard to do sometimes, surrendering to his use of language is for me the surest path to the poem’s sense.
Soonest Mended starts off recognizably enough:
Barely tolerated, living on the marginThe plight of the artist and dreamer, then, and that of others, too.
In our technological society, we were always having to be
Ashbery sets that plight on specific coordinates of space and time. So we are introduced to (or reminded of, depending on our age and geographic location) Happy Hooligan, who “Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything/was O.K.”
Ashbery’s artist and dreamer, enmeshed in the burdens of daily life, wishes for something else:
To step free at least, minuscule on the gigantic plateau—But he is caught—and can’t most of us who’ve lived a while on the planet relate to this:
This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing elseAshbery’s speaker recognizes he’s become a “good citizen,” “Brushing the teeth and all that . . .”. Yet he knows there’s no purpose served by dwelling on such a paltry fact.
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
They were the players . . .
Though its tone is often wistful, the poem holds on to hope. Ashbery ends the poem “Making ready to forget, and always coming back/To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.”
Ashbery has taken the old proverb and made it new:
Make ready to forget. Begin again.
To hear John Ashbery read Soonest Mended, click here.
Click here for a bit of music written by Woody Guthrie, one of the finest artists and dreamers who ever lived. The centennial of his birth will be celebrated in 2012.
<<<>>>Excerpt from interview with John Ashbery about "new music"
Sarah Rothenberg: . . . You're unusually involved in new music. Has that always been so? . . .
John Ashbery: Yes, though when I was a child there really wasn't much to listen to on records. I started collecting records when I first got a phonograph, at the age of about fifteen, and rapidly went through the classical repertory. Then I started listening to whatever new music there was then.
Rothenberg: What kind of music did you find?
Ashbery: There was Les Six, the first new music I heard . . .
The complete interview can be found here.
Listening List (Les Six)
For a Spotify Playlist of Les Six, click on Soonest Mended.
Germaine Tailleferre, Sonata for Solo Harp
Francis Poulenc, Stabat Mater (Vidit Suum)
Darius Milhaud, Le Carnaval d'Aix
Arthur Honegger, Cello Concerto
Louis Durey, Six Pièces de l'Automne (1-4)
Georges Auric, Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon
Credits: The quotations are from John Ashbery's poem Soonest Mended, which can be found in its entirety here. The images are from Wikimedia Commons and may be found here and here.