Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
John Ashbery and a Summary of 'Soonest Mended'
'Soonest Mended' is a poem that explores alienation, learning the lessons of life and personal history. The title comes from a well known proverb:
Least Said Soonest Mended
which basically implies that a tricky or challenging situation can be more quickly resolved if people stop their talking and take action. Ashbery is being ironic in creating a wordy, long-lined poem to explain away his particular tricky situation.
Of medium length, it has 71 lines split into two stanzas, most of the lines long and packed with Ashbery's typical mix of mildly philosophical questioning and answering, metaphorical musing and allusions to popular culture.
- The first stanza (35 lines) records the speaker's attempts to live within societal norms, (hazards of the course) an almost confessional tone surfacing from time to time trying to fathom out just what works and does not.
- The second stanza (36 lines) refines and evaluates what has gone before, the speaker constantly reflecting on what has gone and what was needed to get through the process of becoming someone, a survivor able to look back and understand how and what they have achieved.
Stephen Koch, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described Mr. Ashbery’s work as 'a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.' ('John Ashbery Is Dead at 90; a Poetic Voice Often Echoed, Never Matched' The New York Times by David Orr and Dinitia Smith.)
Many scholars and critics are divided when it comes to Ashbery's status as poet of high esteem. His work tends to be either loved or loathed: 'witty, intellectual and visionary' or 'verbose, obscure and too cerebral.' Ah well, you can't please 'em all.
John Ashbery was well aware of the issue but paid little heed to the controversy. He simply continued to write and publish his poems. When asked by an interviewer for NPR in 2005 whether his poems were 'accessible,' he responded, 'Well, I’m told that they’re not. What they are is about the privacy of all of us, and the difficulty of our own thinking. And in that way, they are, I think, accessible if anyone cares to access them.'
And you'll find his poems appear in many different anthologies, from New Modernist to the classic Norton—which is surely a positive reflection of at least some hidden talent?
'Soonest Mended' offers the reader a chance to get right inside the thought chain of a speaker, reflecting on their role as an outsider within mainstream society.
Ashbery, being gay and growing up at a time when this wasn't readily tolerated or understood, articulates with typical expressive voice, sensitive to the art world, outlining unusual imagery but above all, refining his internal debates and observations as he wanders along.
'Soonest Mended' by John Ashbery
Barely tolerated, living on the margin
In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued
On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso
Before it was time to start all over again.
There would be thunder in the bushes, a rustling of coils,
And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
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.
And then there always came a time when
Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile
Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything was O.K.,
Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused
About how to receive this latest piece of information.
Was it information? Weren’t we rather acting this out
For someone else’s benefit, thoughts in a mind
With room enough and to spare for our little problems (so they began to seem),
Our daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid?
To reduce all this to a small variant,
To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau—
This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.
Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off,
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like:
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.
These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
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, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on shoulders, at last.
Night after night this message returns, repeated
In the flickering bulbs of the sky, raised past us, taken away from us,
Yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth,
The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them,
Not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes
To be without, alone and desperate.
But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting
Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal. These were moments, years,
Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts,
But like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression
Not too reassuring, as though meaning could be cast aside some day
When it had been outgrown. Better, you said, to stay cowering
Like this in the early lessons, since the promise of learning
Is a delusion, and I agreed, adding that
Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been learned,
That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from this standpoint
None of us ever graduates from college,
For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.
And you see, both of us were right, though nothing
Has somehow come to nothing; the avatars
Of our conforming to the rules and living
Around the home have made—well, in a sense, “good citizens” of us,
Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Soonest Mended'
Let's break down the poem at the individual line level.
The first four lines give the reader much food for thought. Here is a group of people, outsiders, having to struggle in a technological society (implying an advanced, engineered, machine-led society) which often endangers them.
There is reference to heroines in an epic poem from Italy, depicted in a French painting naked and made a sacrificial offering to a sea monster. Thankfully there's help at hand in the shape of one Ruggerio (Roger in English) who uses his mighty spear to thwart the hungry beast.
So these initial long, opening lines, typically full of conversational language mixed with cultural references and imagery, set the reader up for a journey through the life of a group of marginals.
And a strong 'clue' as to how this journey will continue is found in the lines that depict Angelica's predicament—is it better for her to forget the whole thing, that she is chained up and destined to be eaten, made a sacrifice?
To reinforce the idea of the individual alienated from mainstream society, the speaker introduces Happy Hooligan, a cartoon strip character from popular American culture of the early 1900s, who according to this Wikipedia entry was:
'a well-meaning hobo who encountered a lot of misfortune and bad luck, partly because of his appearance and low position in society, but who did not lose his smile over it.'
First came the sacrificial Angelica, next the scruffy, not quite down and out Happy Hooligan, both examples of unfortunates who suffer ridicule and danger but in the end, scrape through by the skin of their teeth, because they are worth it.
There is mention of information of a kind - and that the speaker (and his ilk) were acting it out, that is, pretending to be something they were not. Is this a reference to Ashbery's gay growing up? Probably, as a gay man with an artistic bent, living in small town USA he would've had a hard time getting on with normal life—no chance of coming out into the open back in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was a young.
The speaker is looking back, asking questions, reflecting on daily life and the small problems being faced.
So, the idea is to simplify everything, to reduce down—to distill confusion and get some clarity in life. It's fascinating to think that Ashbery's speaker, so eloquent and wordy, wants to boil things down and shed some skin—get down to feelings by using many words!! Isn't this the essence of poetry? Articulating feelings, getting the right words in the right order? Yes, and no.
In this poem Ashbery is after getting experience refined and then refined again, if possible. His is an intellectual ego, soft and whispery, fluent and detailed.
Note the allusion to Keats's poem Bright Star in the line:
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Water being the element of ablution—washing for purification—which implies that perhaps they were better off keeping quiet, like the hermit-devotee (Eremite) of Keats's poem.
But there's no chance. Times change, generation to generation; hanging on to dreams and visions though is important. Crucially however is the process of becoming: the importance of words, of communication, of getting down to basics and holding out for what is necessary: your daily bread, which, as part of the old fashioned methodology, required a threshing floor, where the wheat separated out from the chaff.
Again, this process of narrowing down continues, of the removal of layers, of reflecting on the natural evolution of things. All through the medium, the lens, of speaking.
The hazards of the course are given prominence in the opening lines of this second stanza, suggesting that life for the group (represented shall we say by the speaker?) was a kind of obstacle course, which they knew about but were uncertain of the rules.
The sporting analogy comes next—a question of them and us, the players and spectators, until, finally, the message came home, and they no longer had to be alone, despite going through desperate times.
What is this message? The answer is in the line which starts:
The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them,
Being is what? Essence, the core of life, existence with meaning. So here we have Ashbery as the philosophical challenger perhaps inspired a little by poet Wallace Stevens. The climate in this sense is the atmosphere created by society, which is of its time.
With Ashbery sometimes the reader has to go round the garden path, which is somewhat circular, or a spiral if you will, not actually experiencing the garden at all. Often there is no garden, there is only the language of the garden.
Here fantasy and fence-sitting, reality, kisses, and geometrical progression—all manner of subject matter and imagery is used to relay life and experience to the reader.
Out of the progression comes education and learning, or not as the case may be. The speaker, in cahoots with a friend, partner, associate, decides that it is better not to grow up because none of them will graduate from college, given that the meaning of things is changing daily.
Ashbery's syntax here is potentially quite confusing for the reader simply because he changes tack, as in quick conversation, several clauses in each sentence, the dialogue being almost prose-like.
There is metaphor too . . . time is an emulsion . . . implying that it has two aspects, continuous and dispersed, and cannot be mixed to form one.
Looking back, nothing has come to nothing, which sounds a bit odd for all they've had to endure but maybe there is a feeling of coming full circle here. The avatars (incarnations) have produced, well, decent people who fit into the system, who obey all the rules presumably.
The hazards of the course have been successfully negotiated but in typical Ashbery style there is a neo-philosophical conclusion which owes a good deal to T.S. Eliot's second quartet, East Coker (from Four Quartets):
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.
And also this:
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
Could it be that the speaker has been concentrating on one day, all those years ago? Perhaps the truth is that the one day could be any day. It's always difficult to know if those on the outside of mainstream society, the peripherals, the minorities, are always going to be there in some form or other.
Soonest Mended is not a protest poem, is not a pure confessional and yet the poet himself said that it's a 'one size-fits-all confessional poem' when asked about it.
Ashbery certainly has a way of stretching a point cerebrally to its limit and this poem is a perfect example of that genre. It contains pain, for sure, but it articulates that pain and turns it into popular, playful philosophy not easily taken on board. Somehow they've come through, but is the struggle given enough emphasis?
- Poetry Foundation
- Publishers Weekly
- 100 Essential Modern Poems, Joseph Parisi, Ivan Dee 2005
- Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Spacey