Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Darlene’s Hospital” blurs the distinction between lyric and narrative poetry. Although it tells a story, or at least flirts with narrative, it is more about shifting perceptions than about the narrative. Though the poem seems to center on an individual’s perception of a situation, it is not easy to identify either the individual or the situation. A simple statement of the poem’s thesis, its controlling emotion, or even a paraphrase of the sensuous content is tricky. Instead, the associations of the poem weave in and out, making as much sense as the phrases and images drifting in and out of anyone’s consciousness. Although the poem is divided into paragraphs, each ending with a period, the flow of imagination resists compartmentalization into paragraphs or neat stanzas. The constant shifting between past, present, and future suggests the volatility of consciousness.

“Darlene’s Hospital” operates by association and disorientation rather than by the more traditional logic of assertions, evidence, and qualifications. Although the poem is ostensibly in Ashbery’s voice, it tells almost nothing personal about him. Rather, the poem is concerned with what comes to mind as he follows the image suggested by the poem’s title. At first the title may seem silly, deliberately whimsical—“Darlene’s Hospital” instead of, for example, “County General Hospital” or “The Darlene Smith Memorial Hospital.” The idea of an individual having...

(The entire section is 452 words.)