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Paradoxes and Oxymorons

Page history last edited by Alexandra Howard 15 years, 7 months ago

by John Ashbery



[1]This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level[2].

Look at it talking to you.[3] You look out a window

Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it[4].

You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.


The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.[5]

What’s a plain level? [6] It is that and other things,

Bringing a system of them into play[7]. Play?[8]

Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be


A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,[9]

As in the division of grace these long August days

Without proof. Open-ended.[10] And before you know

It gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.


It has been played once more.[11] I think you exist only

To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there

Or have adopted a different attitude[12]. And the poem

Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.[13][14]


  1. The poem begins by declaring that it is concerned with language on a very plain level. In some sense, this holds true because of the straightforward and simple dictions used. For example, the line “You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.” (4) is pretty easy to understand on a literal level. However, the essential subject matter of the poem, the various roles a poem can take for a person and its effect on human emotions, are quite complicated. Using the example above, one might have some difficulty in understanding how a poem can miss a human and what that personification denotes. Thus, the first line seems paradoxical.
  2. John Asbery calls immediate attention to his diction in the first stanza of the poem. Without analyzing the language, one can quickly connect the phrases to the title. “You have it but you don’t have it” is an example of a paradox. “A deeper, outside thing” is an example of an oxymoron. Thus, Asbery is doing exactly what he described in the first line; he is using language in a simple, plain manner.
  3. The punctuation in the middle of this line emphasizes the line/idea that the poem “talks” to the reader. This idea personifies the poem and brings life to the poem. The poem concerns the relation between the speaker and the poem. This line points to an interaction between the poem that is “talking” and the “you” which is the reader.
  4. This line calls attention back to the title of the poem. "You have it but you don't have it" displays the oxymoron, which relates back to the reader. The whole idea revolves around the principle theme of the poem, where the reader appears to understand something, when really they are incorrect. It amplifies the point of forcing the reader to look on another level, not just on the surface, because the statement clearly does not make sense. Reading poetry or reading into any other subject matter becomes frequently misinterpreted. It ties into the first line describing the usage of plain language to help fix that problem; however, it possibly creates more problems due to multiple viewpoints arising from the simplicity.
  5. Here Ashbury emphasizes the importance of an active interaction between the poem and the reader. By personifying the poem with capabilities of "talking," "miss [ing]," and potentially knowing what sadness is, poem itself is treated like an independent-minded character of this poem with emotions. The poem's behavior and emotions seem to be directly shaped by the participation of the reader. Yet, this poem is paradoxical because no matter how much it wants to interact and be shaped by the reader, it knows that it cannot completely belong to reader.
  6. The sentence "what's a plain level?" questions the entire meaning of the poem as a whole. When the poem opens it is noted that the poem concentrates with language on a "plain level." I believe that the notion of what characterizes the word "plain" is never really answered throughout the poem. The poet indicates that plain can be defined differently according to circumstances in which the phrase "plain level" is used. For instance, although the poet believes the poem is "plain", a reader could believe the poem is very complicated. After this question is posed, the poet strives to answer it however fails miserably due to his (no pun intended) paradoxes and oxymorons.
  7. The poem begins with the use of the word "Plain". In the second stanza the word "plain" is questioned, and the word evolves as the word "Play" is introduced shortly thereafter. The poem ends with another presentation of the word "play", completing the evolution. This device calls attention to the comparisons of plain and play, both in the context of the poem and within their respective meanings. They have a very similar sound with the "play" sound, and this creates an almost blending of the two words, and the two ideas. And since the use of "plain" is a "play" on words anyways, the simplicity of using this unifying sound creates an almost cyclic association of events.
  8. The progression from one topic to the next follows an almost free-association pattern. This gives the poem a reflective structure where the speaker relates his thoughts on the function of language and how poems and readers connect.
  9. As indicated by the title, "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," the poem itself is highlighted by several oxymorons and paradoxes. These features are most noticeable in this particular stanza where the speaker mentions of a "deeper outside thing." Describing an outside thing as deep can only be seen as a oxymoron where it is makes more sense to call an inside thing deep. Same can be said about "the stream and chatter of typewriters" as typewriters are usually conveyed as people who do their work silently.
  10. Placing "open-ended" in the middle of line 11 calls attention to the meaning of the word through the structure. Asbury chose a word that conveys the idea of space and openness, but he crams it in the middle of the line. The structure and meaning are an oxymoron, as stated in the title, but Asbury may be stating that the so-called idea of open-ended is in fact close-ended. He uses words like "patterns" and "divisions" in the same stanza which relate more to closed-ness than openness.
  11. The word "play" bears several connotations throughout the poem. The poem is personified first as an active figure, taking simple concepts and arranging them, putting them into "play." The speaker then questions the meaning of the word, viewing "play" not just as a working system but as an external force which determines roles, actions, and metaphysical state in general, in a type of role-playing game over which the poem, like a person, eventually loses control. In the last stanza it is the poem which has been "played," reduced to a passive state in which it has been tricked by the very person who inspired it, and to whom it cannot belong. Both the person and the poem belong to no one and evade this attachment through their games, which come to control them even as they control the games.
  12. The poem, in all of its paradoxes and oxymorons, gives the impression that the poem is not really a poem at all, but a conversation within one's head. The way the poem addresses the reader is like that of a schizophrenic in a delusional state. The speaker is like the conscience of the reader and it is "playing" with the readers personality and mind. It is as though two personalities reside within one head and are complementing each other. However, the speaker (the conscience), clearly understands more than the reade (the mind) and is easing it into a state of pure confusion and complete sense simlutaneously.
  13. "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" analyzes the reader. It is a reversal of role of a typical poem, in the sense that it dictates to the reader what he/she is feeling about the poem. The poem controls us and converses with us, telling us what to believe. Ordinarily, the reader would try to analyze the speaker, though, not in this case.
  14. There are two very crucial metaphors in this poem. The first is that of the poem and a paradox. The second is the line "the poem is you." Through basic syllogism, this allows a third metaphor to be drawn and that is between "paradox" and you. Essentially the author is saying that the interpretation and thoughts of the reader plays an indispensable role into the paradoxical nature of the poem. If the reader tries to investigate the meaning of the poem, then he or she becomes confused by the wording, hence the paradox. Without analysis by a reader, the itself serves no use, and the paradox is lost.

Comments (1)

nomeaku@... said

at 12:44 am on Oct 17, 2008

I thought that it was an unusual approach for the poet to decide to create somewhat of a disclaimer, announcing to the reader what he intends for the poem to provoke. Ashbery, in a way, relates language to the complexities of a relationship. It seems almost like an individual writing a poem to his/her lover.

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