Extrapolating Meaning from Ashbery’s “The System” Part 1


I’ve brought up John Ashbery a few times in previous posts. Over the past year, I’ve read his fifth book of poems entitled Three Poems (yes, it is a whole book, but only three poems long). These three poems are some of his most difficult and dense material (hence the year of non-continuous effort). Some parts can go on for pages without any stanza breaks, line breaks, or even paragraphs.

I want to dive into my favorite one, “The System.” Before we start, Ashbery is part of the New York School. Here’s a reminder of some things you may have heard about him. He uses pronouns in an interesting way. The pronouns often have no clear referent (he, but no one is mentioned). They tend to change throughout a poem. This can have a startling effect when done well.

He is also known for having a large amount of ambiguity and veiling of meaning. My favorite form this takes is in paradoxical language that sounds perfectly sensible in the context, but the harder you think about it, the less sense it makes. But then moving back out to the context, it makes sense again.

The above technique is why I’ve spent so much time with his work. “The System” in particular often evoked a strange sense that I had thought these exact thoughts, but they couldn’t be expressed. Then I would read some bit of nonsensical verbiage and realize it expressed the thought perfectly.

It is a sensation I’ve never gotten from any other poet (except maybe Wallace Stevens?) and is what started my fascination with him 12 years ago when I wrote a paper in high school analyzing a poem of his. I think my teacher was a little shocked that I didn’t pick Poe or Frost like the other students who wanted a rhyming fairy tale to explain.

The first hurdle for “The System” is its length. Most poems you can read 5 times in 5 minutes to get a feel for its main topics, images, form, etc, before thinking about its meaning. This poem probably takes more than an hour to get through once. There is no way to go into with a feel for its content.

I think this is done on purpose. One of the recurring themes is examining the nature of knowledge and the feeling of hopelessness one can have floating in a confusing system of information. The poem already sets the reader up to experience this sensation with the form and length of the poem.

Now that we have some background information, I’ll go piece by piece through this thing and give my thoughts. This is a highly informal, unresearched, non-academic reaction to Ashbery’s “The System.”

The poem opens up with a semi-narration. There seems to be at least two distinct voices going on. One is personal, and the words come across as reflections on the person’s day as he gets ready for bed. It is elusive, so nothing sets up a scene that definitively:

“As though this were just any old day…For instance, a jagged kind of mood that comes at the end of the day, lifting life into the truth of real pain for a few moments before subsiding in the usual irregular way, as things do.”

The other voice is more grandiose and confident. This voice sets out to explain something to us as opposed to the first voice which we are meant to emotionally identify with. Examples of the second voice:

“–these, I say, have hardly ever been looked at from a vantage point other than the historian’s and an arcane historian’s at that…the whole affair, will, I think, partake of and benefit from the enthusiasm…of the average, open-minded, intelligent person who has never interested himself before in these matters either from not having had the leisure to do so or from ignorance of their existence.”

I’ve pulled these lines out of several pages of text, but I feel like when you focus on these, the beginning gives a solid preamble to the rest of the poem. We are going to be given some sort of retelling of history entangled with a person’s more private reflections on life.

So it starts at the beginning, with the “great impulse” all things (even atoms!) feel: the attraction to find a mate. The poem is quite straightforward in the grandiose voice for a while. It explains how this impulse led to foolishness, chaos, and misunderstanding. The primary misunderstanding being the hope for unity and pure love as the only thing (probably a veiled reference to free love communes of the 60’s?). But this couldn’t last forever, because there is no good without bad.

“It seemed, just for a moment, that a new point had now been reached.” Ostensibly, this refers to the retelling of history, but it also begins a new segment which shifts to second person. The poem focuses in on the reader’s life rather than the impersonal large-scale ideas of the previous section. After placing you in a particular moment of your life (“a pass where turning back was unthinkable”), the pronoun shifts to “we” (a technique brought up in the beginning of this post).

This works wonderfully here, because it lets the reader know that we’ve all been in this situation. Not only that, but we are all in this situation at every moment of our lives. Time flows forward. We can’t go back. This segment continues the metaphor of constant progress and our conflicting opinions we have about this at different moments of life.

The narration continues zooming in on particulars. We went from large scale to your personal feelings and now it continues to a very precise moment: Sunday, the last day of January. Focus shifts to beginnings. The choice of day refers to the beginning of a year, the beginning of a new month, the beginning of a new week. The day passes, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

Now we come to why I really like this poem. The subject turns from this entirely interior world to the manifestations of these anxieties in the exterior world. It starts by first noting how private and interior these thoughts are. Just look out in the world. Everyone goes about their day as if none of these things concern them. How can we even tell it is real?

“On the streets, in private places, they have no idea of the importance of these things. This exists only in our own minds, that is not in any place, nowhere. Possibly then it does not exist.”

The poem starts diving deeper into the rabbit hole any mind let loose will start down. We shouldn’t be concerned with time and choices we make and leaving a mark on the world. We should add to these anxieties that maybe we can’t even know anything. The universe is just too big and vast. We are too small; knowledge too fickle with so many imperfections in the world:

“…that knowledge of the whole is impossible or at least so impractical as to be rarely or never feasible…”

Maybe it’s even better to live in our own fantasies than be burdened with the knowledge of what the world is actually like.

We’ll continue this next post. It looks like this should take roughly 3 parts in total to finish.

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