Isn't it great when poets refuse to keep things nice and simple? Now, before you start to huff and puff and switch on that Xbox, consider the following: yes, John Ashbery is a quirky-sounding dude who writes equally quirky (yet sophisticated) poetry that often makes no sense. But in making no sense, he also offers the chance to create your own answers to the questions his work pose. Essentially, you're free to think what you want—so long as you can back up those brilliant ideas, that is.
And believe us, the world of Ashbery is wide open for interpretation, so don't be afraid to think outside of the box. In fact, we say go ahead and jump right over the edge of that box and take a peek at what may be on the other side. And what you might find is something that looks and sounds like one of those wild paintings at a modern art museum. You know, the ones with the funny shapes that look like fingers but you can't be too sure because the thing that's above the fingers looks like a banana swimming in bunch of pea soup? We're talking Picasso, in other words, or Willem de Kooning, or any other modern abstract expressionist that people claim to know all about, but who can never tell you if it's a finger or hot dog in that painting.
Ashbery is just like those guys, only he's a poet. He's often considered a "painterly poet" because his language plays tricks on you and makes you question everything. His poem "Some Trees," first published in 1956, looks simple enough at first glance. You're thinking, okay, it's a poem about a bunch of trees—cool. Not so fast there, Shmoopers.
When you actually read the poem, you may find that Ashbery is speaking English but the words sound like Greek to you when you put them together. That's okay! In fact, if you ever find yourself reading any of his poems and later feel as if you've got that meaning down pat, you're probably in trouble.
However, a poem has to be about something, even if it's a poem about poems, which modern poets loved to write. "Some Trees," on the one hand, is about trees. Sure Ashbery uses them as a metaphor for relationships, but there's more to it than that. It's also about experience and how we experience… experience. (Yes, there are supposed to be three "experiences" in that last sentence.)
So open that mind, keep it open, and don't get too frustrated if you're left empty-handed by the end of the poem. After all, no one has any answers to those tough life stuff questions, right? But we do have ideas and ideas are great, even if they look like bananas that just took a dip in pea soup.
Did you ever paint, write, or say something that you thought was brilliant but the person you shared it with looked at you like you were crazy? We've all been there. Sometimes people just don't get us, even when we think we're speaking plain as day.
Well, today no one will look at you like you're crazy. In fact, we're all going to encourage you to think as freely and strangely as you want. Now, that's not to say we want you to shout about leprechauns riding unicorns on the fourth of July, but we want you to use that imagination and ask lots of questions.
The reason is because John Ashbery's poems demand that you ask questions and hold off on demanding answers. He thought that most poets who claim to have answers often have no idea what they're talking about. So, at the very least you can use "Some Trees" as backup to your argument that maybe teacher doesn't know everything, especially if the poet himself is telling you that he doesn't know everything.
And it's nice to have a poet who's not cramming answers into our heads. Sure, it may get a little frustrating at times, but Ashbery is trying to tell us to trust our own understanding of any experience we may have. After all, people can't experience things for you, so why would we ask someone to experience something for us and tell us how we should interpret it? We'd rather do it ourselves and make our own answers. Wouldn't you?
And at the very, very least, maybe all this imagination exercise will help us to better understand Lady Gaga's next outfit. Hey, we gotta have goals.
Any Way You Want Him
PBS has a real gem here that contains Ashbery reading some of his work as well as other cool stuff.
The Instruction Manual
Slate Magazine offers a neat little guide to reading Ashbery. You're not alone in thinking he's a tough one to wrap your mind around.
Scholarly Stuff to Make Your Head Spin (In a Good Way)
Here's an online database devoted to Ashbery, covering everything from "Some Trees" to the influence of his homosexuality in his work.
The Poet's View
Ashbery talks about his work and reads a poem about growing up.
Humor, Nature, Action!
It's all right here in this interview.
He Hates the Sound of His Own Voice
A video of "10 Questions for John Ashbery."
The Paris Review Gets it Done
It doesn't get much more thorough than an interview with The Paris Review.
John Ashbery is a Rock Star
Well, not really, but for people who like poetry he is.
"Mapping the Unconscious"
The New York Times takes a peek into the goings-on of Ashbery's mind and works.
The Poet and Artist
Ashbery made his debut as a visual artist at the age of 81. It's never too late!
Here's the complete collection.
On the Outside Looking Out
This one's all about those themes of isolation, misrepresentations, and everything that goes along with it.
Rock and Roll Ashbery
He's got the leather jacket and everything.
Standing with Some Trees
Ashbery is looking rather serious with those amazing trees.
Even Obama Thinks He's Cool
Yep, even the President thinks Ashbery is a poet worth reading.