“Worsening Situation” was published in John Ashbery’s 1975 poetry collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror . As the book title suggests, this free-verse poem is in many ways Ashbery’s convoluted consideration of himself. Although on the surface it reads like meaningless obscurity, which Ashbery often strove for in...
“Worsening Situation” was published in John Ashbery’s 1975 poetry collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. As the book title suggests, this free-verse poem is in many ways Ashbery’s convoluted consideration of himself. Although on the surface it reads like meaningless obscurity, which Ashbery often strove for in his art, a deeper analysis will reveal that it is indeed a self-portrait, which projects a dream-like tone of sadness. He opens with a rainstorm washing colors over him. A washing rain is generally considered cleansing; color is usually cheerful. Yet Ashbery says these things cannot help him, giving the analogy of a person unable to eat at a feast because there are too many dishes to choose from. The sense is that he is overwhelmed. But by what?
The synecdoche—a form of figurative speech in which a part stands in for the whole—of the severed hand lends a clue. As a poet, it is his hand, somehow separate from him, that places art on the page. It produces his living, his fame, his connections in life. And yet John Ashbery—the man inside—seems to feel disconnected from that hand, that part of his life. It wanders in many directions, “a stranger who walks beside” him. Ashbery addresses the charlatans on the outskirts who drop his name as if they know him, but they really don’t. “Everyone is along for the ride, / it seems.” John just wants his name, his privacy, back. He understands that there will be haughty, formal gatherings required of him, but he reaches for the normal things in life: recreation, reading, romance. He is continually affected by this disconnected and disingenuous situation, perhaps to the point of a mental instability. His admittance that there are “occasions / for white uniforms” certainly invokes thoughts of the sterile uniforms in a mental hospital.
This brings us to the increasingly strange ending. The message left on his machine is threatening, manipulative, yet vague, as if it could have been left for anybody. These overtones echo those Ashbey has voiced about the charlatans. Even in his own home he cannot escape the control his career has over his life. The message tells him he’s gotten it all wrong and “must correct the situation” quickly, since “much besides your life depends on it.” What could be more important that one’s life? But that’s Ashbery’s point. The public demands results from an artist, and the art obscures the person, supersedes him, even.
In response, Ashbery is considering a whole new self, symbolized by the “old-fashioned plaids.” Yet upon inspection of the white collared shirts, he wonders if there is truly “a way / to get them really white again.” There is a sadness that he cannot go back to the John Ashbery that he once was. He wife, who “thinks I’m in Oslo- Oslo France, that is,” doesn’t even really know him any more.