Poem of the week: Life is a Dream by John Ashbery
To celebrate the 90th birthday of this majestic writer, a poem whose casual telling of what might be a coming-of-age story reveals some fascinating ambiguities
Monday 31 July 2017 10.31 BST
Life is a Dream
A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard, where they have rollcall.
My name begins with an A,
so is one of the first to be read off.
I am wondering where to stand – could that group of three
or four others be the beginning of the line?
Before I have the chance to find out, a rodent-like
man pushes at my shoulders. “It’s that way,” he hisses. “Didn’t they teach you anything at school? That a photograph
of anything can be real, or maybe not? The corner of the stove,
a cloud of midges at dusk-time.”
I know I’ll have a chance to learn more
later on. Waiting is what’s called for, meanwhile.
It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things
definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,
for instance, that glides
so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.
John Ashbery reached the age of 90 on Friday. By way of congratulation, and as a tribute to his majestic artistry, this week’s blog features one of the later poems, Life is a Dream. It first appeared in the poet’s new-millennium collection, Your Name Here and is reprinted in the Collected Poems.
Characteristically, the narrative jostles together and de-familiarises commonplace scenes and feelings, adding its own shifting weather of hovering menace, anticipation and regret. The poem is dreamlike, except that dreams rarely pause for quasi-philosophical commentary. These are signature moments, in which we recognise not only a voice but a whole style of thought. It’s more than playful: this is the way the dream elements are pulled together and become life-reflecting truths.
It starts as if making grand generalisation. “A talent for self-realisation” hints at the language of the “how-to” guide, and yet it’s not overtly ironical. Doesn’t everyone want to self-realise, and isn’t it a goal in almost every urban person’s reach? Inclusiveness, noted by Mark Ford when he compared Ashbery to Whitman, is among his most appealing qualities. The assertion beginning this poem is like a friendly arm thrown around a mass of human shoulders, if not a mass as classless as Whitman’s reach aspires to. And the self-debunking joke the assertion becomes in a mere three lines carries us with it. “A talent for self-realization / will get you only as far as the vacant lot / next to the lumber yard … ” Wry smiles concede, as the brilliance evaporates – yes, well, that’s life.
A “vacant lot” is a piece of unused land where, typically, there was once a house or building. It has a socially endorsed past, remnants of which might teasingly survive, and is a space freed to attract the urban transgressors, the unrealised adolescents, the rule-breakers and re-makers. You can invent an alternative life in a vacant lot, and, what’s more, find the means of its construction in the retail-ready materials of the lumber yard next door. However, in the poem, as in life, authority isn’t so easily evaded.
What’s happening in the vacant lot is a “rollcall”. Can rollcall ever be a neutral word, post-Auschwitz? Even its lighter associations, eg with schooldays, are not entirely benign. Yet the fact that the poet inserts himself alphabetically into the registration is soothing. That secret desire of readers to believe the poet “really” speaks in his or her poems is humorously satisfied: A is for Ashbery! This might simply be poetry’s rollcall, those “three / or four others” merely poets, hoping to realise themselves without breaking all the rules.
Nothing ostensibly terrible happens. The rodent-like man, a vicious homophobe, we might initially surmise, who physically bullies the protagonist into line, seems to change even as he speaks. His aggression is channelled into a sort of accommodation, a comic philosophical note emerging as idiomatic rage (“Didn’t they teach you anything at school?”) morphs into the more serious question, “Didn’t they teach you anything … ” as if anything itself were a subject, like maths or PE. A postmodern muse of the dazzling anything and everything in poetry’s kitbag, Ratty is even a bit of a Zen master when he instructs the young protagonist “that a photograph of anything can be real, or maybe not (?)” Dreamlike in its fluidity, the chameleon voice finally becomes a poet’s, though not, perhaps, a very good poet’s, fading away into the stereotypical “corner of the stove, / a cloud of midges at dusk-time.”
Life is a Dream reads well as a poetic coming-of-age story. The willingness to wait and learn suggests confident, curious youth, a constrained, not overly impatient player imagining a bigger orchestration for his dream of life. The time-words “later on” and “meanwhile” seem unthreatening. An agreeably mature voice breaks in with the observation, “It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things / definitely aren’t it” and, once more, in our comfy chairs opposite the poet’s, we readers happily acquiesce.
It may additionally be an allegory of love – another area in which “the talent for self-realisation” is likely to be chastised. At the end of the narrative, a significant other will prove inconstant: he is already recognised as a passing phenomenon, the seemingly trusting hand masked by a glove. WH Auden’s villanelle If I could tell you is recalled in the last line, where the gloved hand appears “as though it intends to stay”. However, it’s clearly excluded from the category of things which are life. That’s the sting in the poem’s tail. Whether the hand that “glides so securely” into the speaker’s represents a parental or erotic love, the loss is inevitable: the poem, regretfully, gets over it.
Life is a Dream manages to be both a Song of Innocence and a Song of Experience. Let it float among its rich potentialities, forever young, forever letting process transcend resolution, and, like the poet’s own talent, at home in numerous places and seasons. We’re lucky to be among Ashbery’s contemporaries.
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