Jul. 28, 2003

This Room

by John Ashbery

MONDAY, 28 JULY 2003
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Poem: "This Room," by John Ashbery from Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

This Room

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in Stratford, England (1844). He was the oldest of nine children born to High Church Anglicans. His father was a marine insurance adjuster and also a poet. For a while Hopkins wanted to be a painter-poet like Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Then he got involved in religion and became a Jesuit priest. He preached in the slums of industrial cities: Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. He went through a phase where he felt that poetry was too self-indulgent, and he burned his early poems. But he eventually grew out of it and sent his written poems to his good friend Robert Bridges, who became Poet Laureate in 1913. Hopkins wasn't well-known as a poet until after he died. He was very depressed toward the end of his life because he was working as a Professor of Greek and Latin in Dublin and hated it. He hated grading papers, especially since so many of his students failed their translation exams. Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."

It's the birthday of English novelist Malcolm Lowry, born in Cheshire, England (1909). His father was a cotton broker who owned plantations in Egypt, Peru and Texas. Lowry rebelled from his wealthy upbringing. When he was fifteen, he wrote angry hymns about his mother, whom he hated. He went to sea to work as a deckhand on ships to China and Norway. When he was at boarding school in Cambridge, he goaded a friend to kill himself, and the friend did. Lowry's masterpiece is Under the Volcano (1947), set on The Day of the Dead in Mexico, 1938. It's about a former British consul who has drinking problems and a troubled marriage. Lowry was also a very troubled man: he was an alcoholic prone to relationship difficulties and mental disorders. Lowry died a mysterious death caused by alcohol and an overdose of sleeping pills in 1957. Nobody is sure if it was suicide or not, but it happened to fall on the same date as the suicide of his childhood friend.

It's the birthday of first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, born in East Hampden, Long Island (1929). She graduated from George Washington University, where she majored in French Literature. Then she worked as the Washington Times-Herald's "inquiring photographer." For $43 a week, she'd go up to people and ask them the question of the day, and take their picture. In 1952 Jacqueline met the young congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. They were at a dinner party. She was graceful and elegant and always fashionably dressed, with a headscarf and dark glasses. The media loved her. People embraced her when she went abroad, with her husband or on her own goodwill tours. In 1961 she and JFK went to France, where they liked her even more because she spoke their language fluently. She said, "The trouble with me is that I'm an outsider. And that's a very hard thing to be in American life."

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery, born in Rochester, New York (1927). He was raised on a farm near Lake Ontario. His father was a farmer, and his mother was a biology teacher. He was a member of the "New York school of poets," along with Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara. His poetry is often abstract, and has been compared to the paintings of Jackson Pollock and other avant-garde artists. Ashbery said, "I think my poems mean what they say...There is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing."

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