In Soonest Mended, through a humbling out of self by means of a sequence of self-referential questions and answers, through a process of bringing forth by rejecting and flipping answers and questions around, through a discourse that levels itself out by qualification as it proceeds, John Ashbery achieves a beautiful and stunning sublimation of self through the mere act of talking, thereby discovering, almost as if by accident, the nature of the poetic truth he had, apparently, been aiming for all along.
I posit that Ashbery hones a reductionist, almost mathematical, technique for approaching the truth. His speakers engage in a series of approximations to the “truth” using argumentative qualifications. It is precisely these qualifications that allow the speakers to wend their way to truth by discovering, recovering, and discarding the many “truths” — these weaker version of themselves — that argumentatively lie along the path of such self-referential discourse. This is a key technique used within almost all of Ashbery’s poetry: talk that uncovers truth by qualifying itself at every turn.
Ashbery takes his title from the second half of the proverb “Least said, soonest mended.” The “mended” here was originally “amended” and therein lies a piece of Ashbery humor, as Ashbery doubtless knows the history and origin of this proverb. And that Ashbery choose to leave out the first part of the proverb, namely “least said,” reinforces the notion that Ashbery does not want to say too little, but perhaps “just enough” or even saying “too much” — being exactly the opposite of the original proverb’s advice. It is this that is humorous in a typically cerebral Ashbery sense. So Ashbery chooses to place his focus on the proverb’s second part. Now, from “soonest amended”, we get the idea that one may wish to amend what one has just said by qualifying oneself, and perhaps the “sooner the better” — as implied by “soonest.” This is perhaps a peculiar idea, that we should amend what we say as soon as we say it, yet that is precisely what Ashbery does throughout this poem — constantly qualifying and refining what has been said, by digging around for the “true truth” of his speaker’s arguments rather than quickly settling on one as the unequivocal truth.
In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued
On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso
Before it was time to start all over again.
There would be thunder in the bushes, a rustling of coils,
And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though wondering whether forgetting
The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.
And, as if we had an empty Easter egg basket, we are off to hunt for Ashbery’s meanings — meanings that, at first reading appear to relish ambiguity over overt clarity. Even in the very first line, “Barely tolerated, living on the margin” we are led to wonder: what “margin” is the speaker referring to? The margin of a book? A beach? A writing table? Whatever the choice, margin implies an edge or boundary between two different states or an area of transition. Whatever the nature of this boundary, it is in an uncertain state of affairs.
This is now further clarified by the next line, “in our technological society” — so the speaker may be saying that they are non-technological or else otherwise disenfranchised from the larger “technological society” in some distinct manner. Ashbery is gay, and being gay during the 1950’s and 1960’s would certainly place oneself “on the margins” of mainstream society, especially during those years. Also, being a young writer, he would have been “on the margins” as a publishing poet and as a poet constantly writing new poems “in the margins.”
But as the poet goes on to say, “we were always having to be rescued / On the brink of destruction” — but rescued by whom? And how would one of these rescues proceed? Well, Ashbery’s answer is quite distinct: “like heroines in Orlando Furioso / Before it was time to start all over.” So, the speaker is always having to be rescued like a female heroine in The Frenzy of Orlando or, literally, Mad Orlando, an Italian romantic epic by Ludovico Ariosto that first appeared in print in 1516. However, Ashbery is more likely referring to the operatic interpretation of this epic by Vivaldi. It may be worth noting that Orlando Furioso was the continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s unfinished romance Orlando Innamorato or “Orlando in Love.” And so too, Orlando Furioso is a love story. And it is filled with fantastic creatures such as the hipppogriff and a sea beast called an orc and many others. The story is episodic but shifts place rapidly, wondering all over the globe, from Europe to the Hebrides to Japan. At its core, it is the story of unrequited love between the christian knight Orlando and his pagan princess, Angelica. As the story unfolds, Orlando’s love quickly becomes obsession and devolves into madness. Eventually, Orlando’s friend and fellow knight, Astolfo, journeys to the moon using Elijah’s flaming chariot to bring back Orlando’s wits, because the moon is the place where everything lost on the earth may be found. Orlando, returned to sanity, falls out of love with Angelica, and resumes his duties as a good knight, helping his emperor, Charlemagne, kill King Agramante in battle.
Ashbery’s speaker identifies themselves with the heroine, Angelica, a feminine if not robustly homosexual reference if one assumes Ashbery to be referring to himself and fellow gay writers during the 1950’s. But this reference is immediately run into yet another reference to the story, almost as if it were a doppleganger reference to the first reference, and we are again given Orlando’s Angelica as imagined and painted by Ingres. These lines, with an almost toy-like serpent at Angelica’s feet, feel almost superfluous, except for the words they prompt the speaker to conclude these lines with, namely, “as though wondering whether forgetting / The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.” Although we are not privy as to what “the whole thing” is that is to be, perhaps, forgotten, the finality of this conclusion resonates powerfully within these lines as one possible conclusion to the “barely tolerated, living on the edge” from the poem’s first line and “having to be rescued” from the poem’s preceding lines. Forgetting is a natural and powerful coping mechanism for dealing with loss, especially the loss of a love.
Now, from this point forward, the poem truly begins to mimic, albeit in a very scaled- down version, the wildly episodic shenanigans of Orlando Furioso — as next we meet “Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile” who “Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything was O.K.” And the speaker continues with “Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused / About how to receive this latest piece of information.” Being already in another chapter is how we often find ourselves in life, even as we attempt to stand still to question what has just transpired — life continues onwards without regard around us and, so too, for Ashbery’s speaker.
This is the beginning of an astonishing process of qualification wherein the speaker explores other explanations, often contrary too what has just been said, yet immediately following a statement or pronouncement, as if intentionally negating the previous statement helps to get at the truth of things — a building up and breaking down process the continues its work throughout the poem.Only now we were in another chapter and confused About how to receive this latest piece of information.
Here we witness a marvelous shifting away from one explanation by suggesting a possibly superior alternative explanation: “Was this information? Weren’t we rather acting this out.” This brings up the question of what information itself is, and in the context of a poem, what information are we receiving? Also, “piece of information” implies that it is always incomplete, part of something before itself and after itself, a mere chunk in the middle of a stream of data that is coming at us from the world. But the “weren’t we acting this out / For someone else’s benefit, thoughts in a mind / With room enough and to spare “ aside from a stage with actors performing in front of a audience — something a poem always is, in a sense, doing — also implies social norms and doing what is expected of us but suffused with even a hint or allusion to God, by virtue of the “ampleness” of the mind that can encompass “our little problems” — and all of these suggestive meanings are wrapped up in a quick marvelous short catalog that Ashbery here jots out as “Our daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid?” that concludes this sentence.
Ashbery’s speaker then swings away at yet another possible solution, with:To reduce all this to a small variant
To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau — This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.
But immediately realizes that this would be impossible, and so quickly corrects with:Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
But of course. the arrangements that solved all of this, the reduced it all to “a small variant,” were never simple. Then comes an enigmatic statement followed by a corrective injection of reality, as if in the same breath:Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it. Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off.
Water may act as a magnifying glass or as a mirror reflecting stars at night in a pool of water, so their star would be brighter when it had water in it. But then, this getting thrown off the earth is tempered immediately by the softness of a vision:With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like:
Indeed, why would we think of listening to something else if we are listening to what we wanted to hear? This is one of the most common situations in life, getting what we think we want only to ponder something else, the thing we do not have as if that which is not present has more power over our thoughts than what is in front of us. This is often the case, and Ashbery is right in stating it clearly. And he continues to mine truth along this rich vein that he has here struck, that conclude Ashbery’s first stanza:This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are talkers It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.
And indeed, we are all talkers with hidden agendas, and often waiting for others to move us while ready to fight such movement within ourselves. And often, meaning can be “loose” in the sense that we are just “chatting” to no real purpose other than talk for the sake of social cement, but Ashbery captures this with the superb image of “loose / meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor” where threshing floor is the flat surface a farmer uses to thresh or winnow grain from the harvest. This is perhaps an oblique yet lovely reference to John Keat’s To Autumn, Stanza 2, lines 2-4:Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind:
As we enter the second and final stanza of this poem, the speaker continues with:
Yet thought we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
This then being a statement with an immediate acknowledgment of it being too true or not truthful enough as the “course” does not merely contain hazards on it, but it is composed entirely of hazards, from beginning to end — not unlike life itself. Then we rapidly move to:
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
as time shifts forward 25 years and revelation hits the speaker, that their understanding of “games” was backwards, and that:
They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on shoulders, at last.
So it is the entire “game” that is being hoisted onto the shoulders and moved out of the “tearful stadium” and “at last” as if the time had not come soon enough. The key word here is “spectators” form the Latin spectare, ‘to gaze at, observe’ , which is related to ‘spectacle’ — again, what a poem does, in a sense, is perform a public spectacle. But Ashbery here shifts the “players” for the “spectators” around, and has the stadium carry the players out, and odd mixed metaphor. And next we see these lines:Night after night this message returns, repeated
In the flickering bulbs of the sky raised past us, taken away from us Yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth,
The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them,
Not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes To be without, alone and desperate.
Here the “message” that we are not the players but the spectators is “repeated / In the flickering bulbs of the sky” but these are “raised past us, taken away from us” but somehow “ours over and over until the end that is past truth” and this might certainly be death, which is an “end that is past truth.” Here, Ashbery makes a subtle yet overt allusion to Wallace Stevens, for so loaded is the word “climate” next to the word “sentences” that no one can escape the shadow of Steven’s previous usage of those words. And so too this truth is “not ours to own, like a book” but interestingly to “be without, alone and desperate.” Then the speakers move onward, realizing that:But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fend-sitting Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.
As indeed a fantasy will make anything ours, but only for the duration of the fantasizing. And academics have naturally made this into a “kind of fence-sitting” where we take all sides at once, and thereby make this our esthetic ideal. And Ashbery continues his catalog with:These were moments, years,
Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts, But like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression Not too reassuring, as though meaning could be cast aside some day When it had been outgrown.
Which, of course, is absurd, as meaning can never be simply “caste aside” nor outgrown. But it is an enjoyable fantasy for the speaker. But then the speaker adds yet another “correction” or qualification with:Better, you said, to stay cowering Like this in the early lessons, since the promise of learning Is a delusion,
So learning is a delusion, is yet another “answer” for the speaker who then qualifies this yet again:and I agreed, adding that
Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been learned, That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from this standpoint None of us ever graduates from college,
For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.
But there is inescapable humor and truth in the idea that “none of us every graduates.” Now, that “time is an emulsion” is a lovely image coming from the technical world of photographic film development and chemistry, This returns us to the “margin” where the concept of a boundary or mixing place between two different states of matter occurs naturally comes to us again, for emulsions are part of a class of two-phase systems where one liquid is mixed into another. Emulsions do not have a static structure but rather are best described using statistics — the mathematics of pinning down what generally cannot be pinned down, and so essentially an approximation that yields useful albeit limited information.
But the metaphor of time being an emulsion is fascinating and highly novel, to say the least. Yet the speaker qualifies even this wonderful metaphor with “probably thinking not to grow up / Is the brightest kind of maturity for us” but only “right now at any rate” — as if in the next minute the speaker might decide otherwise, almost exactly like molecules mixing and changing second by second in the emulsion of time that we find ourselves.
And time is indeed uncertain , for we now come into the poems final poetic machinations and stances. At first, the speaker decides upon generosity by offering up:And you see, both of us were right, though nothing Has somehow come to nothing;
But of course, even conceding that both or all arguments were “right” means little if everything has “somehow come to nothing” — an all negating conclusion — which make the concession appear less generous than at first it might have seemed. And the speaker here continues:the avatars
Of our conforming to the rules and living Around the home have made—well, in a sense, “good citizens” of us, Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
For this is action, this not being sure, this careless Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow, Making ready to forget, and always coming back To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.
The word “home” here is highly charged as it describes much more than merely living in a house, but our entire circumstances of living in our “technological society” were we do get to “brushing the teeth and all that” but along with everything else that we do in our lives. In a sense, everything in life happens “around the house.” But now Ashbery turns fully into the poetic sublime, “learning to accept / The charity of the hard moments” for they are indeed a kind of charity, the moments where all of our preparations come together, and we must finally act and choose and do rather than think and describe. But herein the speaker fully curls up into the nature of time by embracing it “for this action, this not being sure, this careless preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow” is but “making ready to forget.” Yet the speaker is not finished as they realize that they are “always coming back / To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago” of their poetic beginnings as to the beginning of their life, and you have the implied yet almost unexpected cliche “life is like a boat ride” left dangling in midair as the poem ends, but the true meanings brought forth lie somewhere far off and reverberate beyond the page.
So, having now worked through the entire text, line by line, and pointing out each internal turn or qualification by the speaker, it becomes apparent that Ashbery has gotten a great deal of distance and motion out of this technique of talking things out by extending talk through constant acts of qualification — ending up with talk that turns upon itself, that decides that there are better answers to be had further down in the discussion. And it is a profound millage. Beginning with “barely tolerated” and arriving at “to the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago,” Ashbery has brought us full circle and back to the beginning by a circling suffused with a delightful new understanding of our limitations and of our inventive capabilities within the confines of language.