Three Poems

Three Poems

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by John Ashbery

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Worked in a prose as demanding and thus as fecund as verse, John Ashbery's Three Poems is a meditational masterpiece, calm in its encounters with minor fictions, desperate in pursuit of a supreme one. Its flutterings are those of the fledged Imagination, its difficulty, that of the Truth.

Three Poems, originally published in 1972, remains one of


Worked in a prose as demanding and thus as fecund as verse, John Ashbery's Three Poems is a meditational masterpiece, calm in its encounters with minor fictions, desperate in pursuit of a supreme one. Its flutterings are those of the fledged Imagination, its difficulty, that of the Truth.

Three Poems, originally published in 1972, remains one of Ashbery's most idiosyncratic and important works.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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1st ed

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Three Poems

By John Ashbery


Copyright © 1997 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5917-5


The New Spirit

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.

clean-washed sea

The flowers were.

These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on to divide all.

Have I awakened? Or is this sleep again? Another form of sleep? There is no profile in the massed days ahead. They are impersonal as mountains whose tops are hidden in cloud. The middle of the journey, before the sands are reversed: a place of ideal quiet.

You are my calm world. This is my happiness. To stand, to go forward into it. The cost is enormous. Too much for one life.

There are some old photographs which show the event. It makes sense to stand there, passing. The people who are there—few, against this side of the air. They made a sign, were making a sign. Turning on yourself as a leaf, you miss the third and last chance. They don't suffer the way people do. True. But it is your last chance, this time, the last chance to escape the ball of contradictions, that is heavier than gravity bringing all down to the level. And nothing be undone.

It is the law to think now. To think becomes the law, the dream of young and old alike moving together where the dark masses grow confused. We must drink the confusion, sample that other, concerted, dark effort that pushes not to the light, but toward a draft of dank, clammy air. We have broken through into the meaning of the tomb. But the act is still proposed, before us, it needs pronouncing. To formulate oneself around this hollow, empty sphere ... To be your breath as it is taken in and shoved out. Then, quietly, it would be as objects placed along the top of a wall: a battery jar, a rusted pulley, shapeless wooden boxes, an open can of axle grease, two lengths of pipe ... We see this moment from outside as within. There is no need to offer proof. It's funny ... The cold, external factors are inside us at last, growing in us for our improvement, asking nothing, not even a commemorative thought. And what about what was there before?

This is shaped in the new merging, like ancestral smiles, common memories, remembering just how the light stood on the water that time. But it is also something new. Outside, can't you hear it, the traffic, the trees, everything getting nearer. To end up with, inside each other, moving upward like penance. For the continual pilgrimage has not stopped. It is only that you are both moving at the same rate of speed and cannot apprehend the motion. Which carries you beyond, alarmingly fast out into the confusion where the river pours into the sea. That place that seems even farther from shore ...

There is nothing to be done, you must grow up, the outer rhythm more and more accelerate, past the ideal rhythm of the spheres that seemed to dictate you, that seemed the establishment of your seed and the conditions of its growing, upward, someday into leaves and fruition and final sap. For it is to be transcended ... The pace is softening now, we can see why it had to be. Our older relatives told of this. It happened a long time ago but it had to happen, which is why we are here now telling about it. If you thought you received more than your share, you could tell about that too. It was a free forum where each one came to cast off these irksome memories, strip down for the night that had preceded us to this place. Surely this was, also, a time of doing, not harvesting, for nothing was ripe, nothing had then been planted ... An active time, tense at the forehead and nostrils before sleep, pushing into the near piles of sticks and leaves and being gently nudged by them in return. A segment, more, of reality. This must be remembered too, it is even very important, but will the memory call itself to the point of being? For it is more tired than anything else. And so it slips away, like the face on a deflated balloon, shifted into wrinkles, permanent and matter-of-fact, though a perversion of itself.

Because life is short
We must remember to keep asking it the same question
Until the repeated question and the same silence become answer
In words broken open and pressed to the mouth
And the last silence reveal the lining
Until at last this thing exist separately
At all levels of the landscape and in the sky
And in the people who timidly inhabit it
The locked name for which is open, to dust and to no thoughts
Even of dying, the fuzzy first thought that gets started in you and
then there's no stopping it.
It is so much debris of living, and as such cannot be transmitted
Into another, usable substance, but is irreducible
From these glares and stony silences and sharp-elbowed protests.
But it is your landscape, the proof that you are there,
To deal with or be lost in
In which the silent changes might occur.

It's just beginning. Now it's started to work again. The visitation, was it more or less over. No, it had not yet begun, except as a preparatory dream which seemed to have the rough texture of life, but which dwindled into starshine like all the unwanted memories. There was no holding on to it. But for that we ought to be glad, no one really needed it, yet it was not utterly worthless, it taught us the forms of this our present waking life, the manners of the unreachable. And its judgments, though harmless and playful, were yet the form of utterance by which judgment shall come to be known. For we judge not, lest we be judged, yet we are judged all the same, without noticing, until one day we wake up a different color, the color of the filter of the opinions and ideas everyone has ever entertained about us. And in this form we must prepare, now, to try to live.

It is not easy at first. There are dark vacancies the light of the hunter's moon does little to attenuate. Ever thought about the moon, how well it fits what it has to light? And those lacquer blobs and rivers of daylight, shaken out of a canister—so unmanageable, so indigestible ... Well, isn't that the point? No, but there comes a time when what is to be revealed actually conceals itself in casting off the mask of its identity, when the identity itself is revealed as another mask, and a lesser one, antecedent to that we had come to know and accept. You think of clean legends, of this waking as penetrating a solid block of day. But day is there to assure you that you can't have this in another way, as you could with the films and shadows of night, to tell you that your mutually amused half-acceptance is not the wrong way to start, at any rate, that any breathing is to be breathing into each other, and imperfect, like all apprehended things.

Nevertheless the winter wears on and death follows death. I've tried it, and know how the narrowing-down feeling conflicts with the feeling of life's coming to a point, not a climax but a point. At that point one must, yes, be selective, but not selective in one's choices if you see what I mean. Not choose this or that because it pleases, merely to assume the idea of choosing, so that some things can be left behind. It doesn't matter which ones. I could tell you about some of the things I've discarded but that wouldn't help you because you must choose your own, or rather not choose them but let them be inflicted on and off you. This is the point of the narrowing-down process. And gradually, as the air gets thinner as you climb a mountain, these things will stand forth in a relief all their own—the look of belonging. It is a marvelous job to do, and it is enough just to approximate it. Things will do the rest. Only then will the point of not having everything become apparent, and it will flash on you with such dexterity and such terribleness that you will wonder how you lived before—as though a valley hundreds of miles in length and full of orchards and all sorts of benevolent irregularities of landscape were suddenly to open at your feet, just as you told yourself you could not climb a step higher. This casual, poorly seen new environment (but how gladly you are aware of imperfect vision, this time!) is to be the new kind of arbitrariness for you, one that protects and promotes without ever leaving the time-inflicted lesions of the old, toward which you struggled so hard without knowing it. These are vanished with the saw-toothed anomalies of time itself, and an open, moist, impregnable order of the day—kind, generous and protective—surrounds you as the artless gestures of a beautiful girl surround her with nobility which may never be detected, the fountain of one's life. And one never need wish to see it, for its truth does not matter, and is unimaginable.

You were always a living
But a secret person
As much into life
Yet not wanting to "presume"
Was the insurance
That life churned thick in the after-feeling
And so, even more, a sign of what happens today,
The glad mess, the idea of striking out.

Such particulars you mouthed, all leading back into the underlying question: was it you? Do these things between people partake of themselves, or are they a subtler kind of translucent matter carrying each to a compromise distance painfully outside the rings of authority? For we never knew, never knew what joined us together. Perhaps only a congealing of closeness, deserving of no special notice. But then the eyes directing out, living into their material and in that way somehow making more substance than before, and yet the outward languid motion, like girls hanging out of windows ... Is this something to be guessed at, though? Can it be identified with some area in someone's mind? The answer is yes, if it is experienced, and it has only to be expected to be lived, suspended in the air all around us. As I was going to say, this outward-hanging ledge over the pitfalls of mankind, proves that it is something you know, not just as the tree is aware of its bark, but as something left with you on consignment. And it need not just be, it can grow, with you though not part of you, if you are willing to see it as reverting back to nature and not as the ultimate realization of Roman engineers, a stone T-square.

But how does this work? And yet you see yourself growing up around the other, posited life, afraid for its inertness and afraid for yourself, intimidated and defensive. And you lacerate yourself so as to say, These wounds are me. I cannot let you live your life this way, and at the same time I am slurped into it, falling on top of you and falling with you. At this point it is again time for forgetting, not casually so as to repeal it delightedly later on, but with a true generous instinct for ending it all. This is the only way in which new lives—not ours—can ever begin again. But the thought haunts me—will they be defined in terms of what we never were? Will the negative outlines of our never doing define their being, a repoussoir, and so enmesh themselves even more disastrously with their wanting to become? If that were the case it would be better to stop right here, in this room, only to continue breathing so that life might pursue its unwanted course, far from temptations of the future, yes that's it, so that in getting to know you I renounce any right to ulterior commemoration even in the unconscious dreams of those mythical and probably nonexistent beings of whose creation I shall never be aware. I'm sorry—in staring too long out over this elaborate view one begins to forget that one is looking inside, taking in the familiar interior which has always been there, reciting the only alphabet one knows. To escape in either direction is impossible outside the frost of a dream, and it is just this major enchantment that gave us life to begin with, life for each other. Therefore I hold you. But life holds us, and is unknowable.

They told this tale long ago
The legend of the children, in which they get closer
To the darkness, but go on living.
The motion of the story is moving though not
getting nearer.

They told this throughout all times, in all cities. The shape-filled foreground: what distractions for the imagination, incitements to the copyist, yet nobody has the leisure to examine it closely. But the thinness behind, the vague air: this captivates every spectator. All eyes are riveted to its slowly unfolding expansiveness; it is the magnanimity that creates this urge to emulate, like life, to grow, and it is the shapeless modest tale, told in the cottage at twilight. Progress to be born.

You know that emptiness that was the only way you could express a thing? The awkwardness around what were necessary topics of discussion, amounting to total silence on all the most important issues? This was our way of doing. Your body could formulate these things, projecting them into me, as though I had thought of them. Everything drops in before getting sorted out. This is our going now. I as I seem to you, you as you are to me, an endless game in which the abraded memories are replaced progressively by the new empty-headed forms of greeting. Even as I say this I seem to hear you and see you wishing me well, your eyes taking in some rapid lateral development reading without comprehension and always taken up on the reel of what is happening in the wings. Which becomes a medium through which we address one another, the independent life we were hoping to create. This is your eyes noting the passing of telephone poles and the tops of trees. A permanent medium in which we are lost, since becoming robs it of its potential. Nothing is to be learned, only avoided, nor can the truth of this be avoided, but it lingers on like microorganisms in the crevices. In you I fall apart, and outwardly am a single fragment, a puzzle to itself. But we must learn to live in others, no matter how abortive or unfriendly their cold, piecemeal renderings of us: they create us.

To you:

I could still put everything in and have it come out even, that is have it come out so you and I would be equal at the end of our lives, which would have been lived fully and without strain. But each of us has more of the vital elements than the other needs, or less: to sort them out would be almost impossible inasmuch as we are kept, each from the other: only the thawing nerve reveals it is time when one has broken out of some stupor or afternoon dream, and by then one is picking up for the evening, far from the famous task, close to the meaningless but real snippets that are today's doing. You understand we cannot casually borrow elements of each other so that it all comes out right. Force and mastery are required, they are ready in fact, but to use them deeply without excuses is a way of intermittent life, and the point was that the moments of awareness have to be continuous if they are to exist at all. Thus the sadness as I look out over all this and realize that I can never have any of it, even though I have it all as I in fact do. To be living, in each other, the perfect life but without happiness.

Well, this is what I get for all my plotting and precautions. But you, living free beyond me, are still to be reckoned into your own account of how it happens with you. I am afraid that you will never see your way clear through the velleities of the excursion to that other shore, eternal despite its finite nature, of acquisitions, suggestions and hints, useful, irregular: the exposed living that is going on, and of which you are a part, so that it could be said to exist only for you. You are too close to this happy state for it to matter for you. But meanwhile I am to include everything: the furniture of this room, everyday expressions, as well as my rarest thoughts and dreams, so that you may never become aware of the scattered nature of it, and meanwhile you are it all, and my efforts are really directed toward keeping myself attached, however dimly, to it as it rolls from view, like a river which is never really there because of moving on someplace. And so the denser moments of awareness are yours, not the firm outline I believe to be mine and which is probably a hoax as well: it contains nothing after all, only a few notions of how life should be lived that are unusable because too general. Nothing applies to your strict handling of how the roots should be lived, without caring about the flowers and leaves that may tower over them, a subsidiary mass, someday. Only the day-to-day implications matter for you. You are right, I suppose, but there was this image as it once came to me, of its brightness being together—not hanging together, for this implies waiting to be seen—but existing as smoke up around the bright levels of incidence and so on up into the sky, purified from being breathed in and alive from having lost life at last. Leaving rolls of experience and they happen further down too, are filling space up as they create more space.


Excerpted from Three Poems by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1997 John Ashbery. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Three Poems 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
pmccord9 More than 1 year ago
This book is to other books what LSD is to table salt. And yes, those books include books of poetry, national defense, Vogue covers, Indonesian Home Cooking, STDs, and the collected works of Carl Jung. Patient reading will make your brain effervesce in a most pleasant way.