John Ashbery’s “A Sweet Disorder” in the New Yorker, and Herrick and Keats

Robert Herrick

The November 10, 2014 issue of the New Yorker will feature a new poem by John Ashbery called “A Sweet Disorder,” and the magazine just posted the poem and an audio recording of Ashbery reading it.

The poem borrows its title, of course, from a 17th-century poem of the same name by Robert Herrick (also known as “Delight in Disorder”).  Herrick’s poem, like Ashbery’s perhaps, is a little celebration of disorder, where “A sweet disorder in the dress / Kindles in clothes a wantonness” and all manner of error and messiness bewitches us more “than when art / Is too precise in every part.”

Ashbery’s poem also ends with a famous phrase lifted straight from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” — “Do I wake or sleep?”  It seems as if this line — with its confusion over the border between dream and reality — has long interested Ashbery, as he has alluded to it at other points in his career.  For example, in “The Skaters” (1964), he writes:

“The west wind grazes my cheek, the droplets come pattering down;
What matter now whether I wake or sleep?”

And in “The New Spirit” (1970):

“Have I awakened? Or is this sleep again?”

An interesting footnote: in Frank O’Hara’s 1953 play Try! Try!, O’Hara had one of the main characters, who is named John and who was played by John Ashbery when the play was first performed, say — you guessed it! — the phrase “Do I wake or sleep?”

In other words, the link between Ashbery and Keats’s phrase goes back a long way, even more than half a century.

If you’re interested in thinking more about Ashbery’s playful allusions to earlier British poets like Herrick and Keats, check out Ben Hickman’s recent book John Ashbery and English Poetry for an extended study of the topic.

Here’s the final stanza of Ashbery’s poem:

My gosh, it’s already 7:30.
Are these our containers?
Pardon my past, because, you know,
it was like all one piece.
It can’t have escaped your escaped your attention
that I would argue.
How was it supposed to look?
Do I wake or sleep?

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