Jul. 28, 2005


by John Ashbery

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Poem: "Composition" by John Ashbery, from Where Shall I Wander © Ecco. Reprinted with permission.


We used to call it the boob tube,
but I guess they don't use tubes anymore.
Whatever, it serves a small purpose after waking
and before falling asleep. Today's news—
but is there such a thing as news,
or even oral history? Yes, when you want to go back
after a while and appraise the accumulation
of leaves, say in a sandbox.
The rest is rented depression,
available only in season
and the season is always next month,
a pure but troubled time.

That's why I don't go out much, though
staying at home never seemed much of an option.
And speaking of nutty concepts, surely "home"
is way up there on the list. I feel more certain about "now"
and "then," because they are close to me,
like lovers, though apparently not in love with me,
as I am with them. I like to call to them,
and sometimes they reply, out of the deep business of some dream.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in Stratford, England (1844). He was born to a family of High Church Anglicans. He converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest. He preached in the slums of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Working among poor people, he felt that poetry was too self-indulgent. He burned his early poems, but eventually he grew out of it. He sent his written poems to his friend Robert Bridges, who published them after Hopkins's death.

Gerard Manley Hopkins spent the end of his years in Dublin as a professor of Greek and Latin, teaching classical languages to students who didn't care for them, and he hated his work. He hated grading papers since so many of his students had failed their exams, but he tried to fight off his depression, and his last words before he died were, "I am happy, so happy."

It's the birthday of the novelist Malcolm Lowry, born in Cheshire, England (1909) whose masterpiece is Under the Volcano, set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, 1938, about a former British consul who has a problem with alcohol and a troubled marriage, which mirrored Lowry's own life.

It's the birthday of the poet John Ashbery, born in Rochester, New York (1927). He was raised on a farm near Lake Ontario, where he worked in the orchards every summer. His grandfather lived in a big Victorian house and read all the classics, and young John Ashbery looked forward to visiting his grandpa every summer so he could go through his library.

He went off to Harvard where his friends were the poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara, who, along with the poet James Schuyler, they became known as the New York School of Poetry, thought it wasn't really a school so much as just a group of friends who wrote poetry together.

He supported himself as an art critic; and in 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his book-length poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

John Ashbery said, "I've always felt myself to be a rather frustrated composer who was trying to do with words what musicians are able to do with notes."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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