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A Comparative Analysis of John’s Ashbery’s Poem

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While both poems of John Ashbery and John Keats speak about man and his view or fear of death and mortality, which are seemingly big and almost “world shattering,” albeit common place an issue for a man, both poems can also have a less grim and lighter reading: that which address a ‘death’ more feared by a poet, or a writer for that matter; the death of his writing, or what is commonly known as…

“Around the Rough and Rugged Rocks the Ragged Rascal Rudely Ran”

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And John Keat’s Poem “When I Have Fears”

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality.

But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from these”(Eliot, 1922) “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” (Frost, 1912).

While both poems of John Ashbery (1927) and John Keats (1795) speak about man and his view or fear of death and mortality, which are seemingly big and almost “world shattering,” albeit common place an issue for a man, both poems can also have a less grim and lighter reading: that which address a ‘death’ more feared by a poet, or a writer for that matter; the death of his writing, or what is commonly known as writer’s block.

If this be too weak of an issue, then perhaps, it could also be read as a dread for that other ‘death’, which is, being unknown and unnamed and living a life in vain. That, however, is getting ahead of the discussion. With an analysis of a work, it is usual that concerns regarding form be discussed before getting into a proper discussion regarding the poem’s content or  substance, where proper reading/readings of the poem, by way of an analysis of its ‘message,’ is properly addressed.

A literation, Rhyme, Meter and Imagery

Although the poem title of John Ashbery (1927) is clearly alliterative, by the repetitive use of the initial ‘R’ sound – rough, rugged, rocks, ragged rascal, rudely and ran, this almost ‘thesauric’ alliterative device is not seen quite clearly reflected in the body of the poem. There is barely an attempt in fact, even at formal rhymes, whether masculine, or feminine, or even ‘lazy’ rhymes for that matter. A few sample attempts however could be found in the poem such as in lines 1 and 2, “a lot, about” (Ashbery, 1927), line 8, “ that, this, track” (Ashbery, 1927), line 9, “poor, parched” (Ashbery, 1927). A few rhymes here, or at least an attempt could also be found in the poem, though with not much consistency. Lines 24 and 25, “busy, dictionary” (Ashbery, 1927). On the other hand, Keats (1795) poem does not make use of alliteration as a poetic device. In fact, Keats (1795) poem is tighter and uses not only bound verses, but syllabic count and rhymes as well, which is not found in the poem by Ashbery (1927). The careful syllabic count of ten (10) syllables per line, except for a slip in line 11, where there are 11 syllables, if we count the word faery as two syllables. So tight and well followed is the syllabic count that the poet used contractions to keep with the meter, such as “ripe’nd” (Keats, 1795) in line 4 and “starr’d” (Keats, 1795)in line 5, which, going back to the above mentioned slip in line 11,  “glean’d in” (Keats, 1795) line 2, it is a wonder why he did not contract the word power in that line to keep the syllabic count. Perhaps, the word faery is to be counted as monosyllabic. The verses also rhyme; with the scheme A-B-A-B-C-D-C-D-E-F-E-F-G-G, which can be comparable to a sonnet. This syllabic metering and rhyme scheme is absent from Ashbery’s (1927) poem as the other one is clearly of the free-verse type, with as much as seventeen (17) syllables in line 3, “The omnipresent possibility of being interrupted” (Ashbery, 1927), to as little as five (5) syllables in lines 12, “We keep to ourselves” (Ashbery, 1927) line 16,“If I could write it” (Ashbery, 1927), and line 18, “The interruption” (Ashbery, 1927).

Metaphor and Imagery

Both poems effectively used metaphor and imagery, though at very different levels and texture. Ashbery’s (1927) poem, in keeping with a loose and non-formalist free verse type of poem used almost cryptic metaphors as well as imagery in his poem. Samples in the poem are such in line 3 “The omnipresent possibility of being interrupted” (Ashbery, 1927), line 14, “A belch of daylight” (Ashbery, 1927), line 13, “Carpentered together any old way” (Ashbery, 1927). The image and tone are very cryptic, and almost prosaic, which works for a poem with the same prosaic quality and tone. On the other hand, Keat’s (1795) metaphor and imagery are also pitch perfect for the tone of the poem, which is structured, bound and formalist. Almost romanticist language and figures of speech abound in the poem such as line 2, “my pen has glean’d my teeming brain” (Keats, 1795), line 5, “nights starr’d face” (Keats, 1795), line 8, “magic hand of chance” (Keats, 1795), and line 9, “fair creature of an hour” (Keats, 1795), among others.

Content, Substance and Reading

At the very meat of every poetic discussion is the poems content or substance, and its reading, which is relative to every reader. A poem, after all, is the sharing of the poet through his speaker or persona in the poem a significant human experience to his readers and the world at large. Technically, there is no wrong interpretation or misreading of a poem, really, and as Robert Frost puts it, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” (Frost, 1912)

If we are to use W.H Auden’s measure of a good poem, then perhaps, these two poems seem to say the same thing actually, but when Auden said, these two poems still work and pass with high marks.

“One demands two things of a poem.  Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written.  Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.  What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves. (Auden, 1907)

So much so that while both poems seem to tackle about mortality, they each have a different way of saying what they wanted to say. Ashbery (1927) clearly states the theme of loss and mortality in a wispy and almost cryptic, dark, mysterious and brooding way the concept of this loss as in line 4, “while what I stand for is still almost bare canvas” (Ashbery, 1927), line 14, “coffee from an old tin can, a belch of daylight” (Ashbery, 1927), and this death he terms as the “interruption” in line 18 (Ashbery, 1927).

On the other hand, Keats pronounced his in a romanticized longing in an almost melancholic and nostalgic way.  He sketches death as something that happens when he “ceases to be” in lines 1 and 2, “before his pen has gleaned his teaming brains” (Keats, 1795), “before high piled books hold the full ripened grains” (Keats, 1795), in lines 3 and 4. “He fears that he may not be able to trace the shadows of huge cloudy symbols of high romance in the starred face of night with the magic hands of chance” (Keats, 1795), in lines 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Both are valid and very powerful rendering of the fear of loss or death before one’s time has come, and I agree that both poems have aptly written of this fear in very laudable “performances” in the poems. However, I stand correction by putting forth a tamer and lighter reading and less grim interpretation of both poems. I humbly put forth the proposition that these poems do not necessarily talk about a bodily death, or mortality, per se. My personal position is that these poems speak of death, but not of a bodily or permanent nature. In fact, the interpretation is in tune with Ashbery’s (1927) notion that this is a mere ‘interruption’ of sorts in line 18 (Ashbery, 1927). Even in Keats (1795) poem, there is suggestion that this is not bodily death as he, of the wide world, stand alone and think, in line 13 (Keats, 1795), which suggests that even this ‘ceasing to be’ in line 1 (Keats, 1795)) is merely temporary. The same lines that bolter the idea of physical death can be used to support that this death is but temporary, and I dare say, refers to a death most feared by writers; poets to be more specific – the feared and chilling death of a mind gone blank : writer’s block. In the same light, this could also be interpreted as the fear of being an unknown face in the sea of humanity. Being un heard of, unread, unnoticed, and to live a life in shadows of anonymity, and dying in vain. This allowance for multiple readings only bolster what is already, obvious; that these two poems are sterling examples of great literature and are gems that must be read and rediscovered. After all, such an alternate reading is complementary to the idea of them being about mortality, and not in contradiction to it. It is but a mere enrichment of the context and not a conflicting view. As with conflicts in poetics, and in conclusion, another poet, Yeats (1865), once said and I quote that “of our conflict with others, we make rhetoric; of our conflicts with ourselves, we make poetry.” (Yeats, 1865)

Works Cited

  1. Ashbery, John. “John Ashbery Collected Poems 1956-1987.” The Library of America. 1956. 24 Feb. 2009 <http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=291&section=toc>.
  2. Auden, W.H. “W.H. Auden.” The W.H. Auden Society. 1907. 24 Feb. 2009 <http://audensociety.org/index.html>.
  3. Eliot, Thomas Stearns. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Bartleby.com. 1922. 24 Feb. 2009 <http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html>.
  4. Frost, Robert. “Robert Frost.” Bartleby.com. 1912. 24 Feb. 2009 <http://www.bartleby.com/people/Frost-Ro.html>.
  5. Keats, John. “When I have Fears.” About.com. 1795. 24 Feb. 2009 <http://quotations.about.com/cs/poemlyrics/a/When_I_Have_Fea.htm>.
  6. Yeats, William Butler. “William Butler Yeats Quotes.” Worldofquotes.com. 1865. 24 Feb. 2009 <http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/William-Butler-Yeats/1/>.

Cite this A Comparative Analysis of John’s Ashbery’s Poem

A Comparative Analysis of John’s Ashbery’s Poem. (2016, Jul 29). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/a-comparative-analysis-of-johns-ashberys-poem/

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