Thursday, March 4, 2010

John Ashbery

(b. 1927)

“They Dream Only of America” (1962)
“Street Musicians” (1977)

On “They Dream Only of America”:
This poem seems a good bit hard to understand, and maybe it is meant to be that way, but I get a sense of bitter-sweetness to it. Stanza 1 seems to be full of hope, ‘dreams.’ Stanza 3 has the idea of first getting to drive, ‘”Please,” he asked willingly.’ (10). Stanza 4 has the idea of now ‘having’ to drive (15). The lines ‘through dandelions’ (14), ‘pillars of grass’ (2), ‘honey…burns the throat’ (3-4) make me think of allergies; that’s where I think his headache comes from. In stanza 5, we see him trudging through and making it home. Stanza 6 delivers the bitterness. It’s kind of like he turned on a TV that strangely reflects his situation: “What is it to be back/ Beside the bed? There is nothing to do/ For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” (22-24). He sits sadly. Not even his bed brings him comfort. He is waiting for something that seems like it can or will never come, yet the idea hangs there onto the edge. That idea keeps him going, ‘I am lost without you.”’ (25). Thus I get bitter-sweet from my reading.

I think that it is interesting that so much smoke imagery in involved in this poem. Ash tray. Cigar. Thirteen million pillars of grass (2)… hiding from darkness in barns (5)… sounds like tobacco farming. A person would ‘murder’ (7) a cigarette by smoking it. So together, it seems like the speaker is saying the young person’s dream has gone up in smoke. Beware trusting in things that are only temporary.

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