“Rejoice Docently”: A New John Ashbery Poem, Plus His Own Commentary

John Ashbery

As part of its Poem-a-Day feature, the Academy of American Poets posted a new poem titled “Honestly” by John Ashbery today.  Here’s the last stanza of the short poem, which sets up a typically Ashberyean contrast between an unknowable, elusive past and a mystifying present:

Once we were passionate about the police,
yawned in the teeth of pixels,
but a far rumor blanked us out.
We bathed in moonshine.
Now, experts disagree.
Were we unhappy or sublime?
We’ll have to wait until the next time
an angel comes rapping at the door
to rejoice docently.

(I know there’s a way to do this.)

It’s an intriguing and rather lovely poem, with some striking lines and a tantalizing but perhaps inadvertent echo of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — a song that features a “vagabond,” instead of an angel, “who’s rapping at your door.”

But it’s also notable and welcome because Ashbery offered a few remarks about his poem, something he very rarely does:

“It’s difficult for me to comment on the writing of a poem. It seems to be a process of discovering something and then forgetting it. ‘Experts disagree’ reminds me of Laura Riding’s book title Experts are Puzzled. Both of us, I think, are suspicious of experts, but in my case it’s a question of finding out whether we were formerly unhappy or sublime. The last line crystallizes for me the desperate hope of every poet when writing. Let’s hope ‘there’s a way to do this.’”

Another John Ashbery poem, another reason for experts to be puzzled and to disagree. But surely Ashbery will go on rejoicing docently and liking it that way.

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