Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The fact that Ashbery chose the title of this poem as the title of the collection in which it first appeared suggests the importance of the poem to the body of Ashbery’s work. Ashbery is well known for assigning whimsical titles to his poems, titles that have nothing obvious to do with the poem. However, this poem is, in a sense, about what its title says: days spent in a dwelling that moves with time. A synopsis of the poem might make it sound more weighty and melancholy than it is. In fact, the tone of the poem is often quite light as Ashbery takes such serious subjects as pain and the nature of time and space and parodies the language poets and others might use to talk about them.

Ashbery is concerned with the passage of time and the way memory and perception bounce back and forth in the mind to give people a sense of what they call reality. In “Houseboat Days,” reality is the interchange between perception and the world and, within perception, between sensing, thinking, and feeling. Odd though the poem’s opening is, it is an opening, for the quotation ends with the word “began,” and, as the first stanza ends, Ashbery brings readers back to the vague “beginning, where/ We must stay, in motion,” flashing light into the “house” of consciousness (imagination) within, with its memories and associations. Ashbery’s transcription of mental associations at first makes “Houseboat Days” jumpy and incoherent. Out of the seemingly random...

(The entire section is 463 words.)