“The Improvement” by John Ashbery (Favorite Poem Project)


I first learned of John Ashbery’s poetry in 1970. And I think what happened was that when I first read his books I began to think that maybe this man would have something in common with me as far as where we grew up and sure enough… I wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d grown up along Lake Ontario the same as I did. Was very used to these snow qualls that we’re having. I grew up on a farm. He grew up on a farm. He was probably about 15 miles away from me and I didn’t know he was there and he sure didn’t know I was there. But I felt that connection when I did find that out. “The Improvement” by John Ashbery. Is that where it happens? / Only yesterday when I came back, I had this /
diaphanous disaffection for this room, for spaces, / for the whole sky and whatever lay beyond. / I felt the eggplant, and then the rhubarb. / Nothing seems strong enough for /
this life to manage, that sees beyond /
into particles forming some kind of entity? / so we get dressed kindly, crazy at the moment. /
A life of afterwords begins. / We never live long enough in our lives /
to know what today is like. / Shards, smiling beaches, /
abandon us somehow even as we converse with them. / And the leopard is transparent, like iced tea. / I wake up, my face pressed /
in the dewy mess of a dream. It mattered, /
because of the dream, and because dreams are by nature sad / even when there’s a lot of exclaiming and beating / as there was in this one. I want the openness / of the dream turned inside out, exploded /
into pieces of meaning by its own unasked questions, / beyond the calculations of heaven. Then the larkspur /
would don its own disproportionate weight, / and trees return at the starting gate. / See, our lips bend. / Well, I think what he is saying is that this is what life is like from the beginning to the end. We are in a tunnel and all kinds of things happen to us. There’s only one way to describe them and it’s not event by event, or experience by experience. It’s a total experience. And that’s how I feel with his poems. He’s talking about the totality of life. The “Favorite Poem Project” is made possible by The National Endowment for the Arts fostering America’s creativity and investing in our living cultural heritage. Additional funding has been provided by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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