The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Ashbery’s “Darlene’s Hospital” is a seventy-five-line free-verse lyric poem in four verse paragraphs of roughly equal length. The poem explores the process of the poet’s mind as it focuses on the phrase “Darlene’s Hospital.” Like many other Ashbery poems, this one concerns itself with memory and time while both describing and evoking the flow of language and association through the present. Perhaps the simplest thematic statement one could make about “Darlene’s Hospital” is that it is a meditation on the way memory and imagination deal with loneliness and the passage of time, an ever-present reminder of mortality. The daydreaming in the poem is more realistic and less romantic than the daydreams in nineteenth century poetry, but an uneasy tension between realism and romance remains.

Although it is tempting to suppose that Ashbery had been reading Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot” or looking at one of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings based on that poem, “Darlene’s Hospital” is not a straightforward retelling of Tennyson’s narrative. The room on the island of Shallot where the lady in Tennyson’s poem weaves a “magic web with colors gay” based on her view in a mirror of the landscape around Camelot is mimed in the “colors” and daydreams in Ashbery’s poem. In Tennyson’s poem, the lady is cursed if she looks on the scene directly and can view Camelot only in her mirror, though “She knows not...

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Darlene's Hospital Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Evocation, the drawing out of sensory and emotional associations, is central to the method of “Darlene’s Hospital.” A reading of the first verse paragraph foreshadows Ashbery’s method throughout the poem. The first line picks up the word “hospital” from the title, but what follows the phrase “The hospital” is disorienting. Instead of being given a description of a building, readers are taken into “her” mind, only to be told that “the colors” were not “her idea.” “The colors” seem to be the paint on a picture in progress, and though they are “muddy,” they spew “random evocations everywhere.” By association, the hospital becomes “A secret lavender place you weren’t supposed to look into,” the sky, an unlikely place to hide something.

The phrase “Provided that things should pick up next season” seems to refer to the colors’ evocations but is perhaps just a random clause that might fit into any sentence. Ashbery’s ear is tuned to the clichés, idioms, and commonplace phrases that litter discourse, in contrast to Tennyson’s carefully chosen poetic diction. The next sentence seems to relate to the first but also might appear anywhere. The “it” in “It was a way of living” refers vaguely back to “things” picking up next season, but the only “thing” that has occurred is colors sliding “from the brush” and spewing evocations. The whole beginning of the poem evades saying that anything at...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Darlene's Hospital Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Ashbery: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Casper, Robert N. “Interview with John Ashbery.” Jubilat 9 (Fall/Winter, 2004): 44-50.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Moramarco, Fred. “Across the Millennium: The Persistence of John Ashbery.” American Poetry Review 33 (March/April, 2004): 39-41.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Vincent, John. “Reports of Looting and Insane Buggery Behind Altars: John Ashbery’s Queer Poetics.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Summer, 1998): 155-175.

Yau, John. “The Poet as Art Critic.” American Poetry Review 34 (May/June, 2005): 45-50.