Themes and Meanings

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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 associations, however, Ashbery develops an abstract coherence metaphorically similar to a houseboat day, moving and standing still, rocking on gentle waters.

Uncertainties of time and place put the reader “beyond amazement.” In fact, “Houseboat Days” is full of evasions and deflections. Pronoun shifts, quotations that are not obviously quoted, and quotations in unidentified voices all put readers in a realm that challenges their normal expectations of time and space. One cannot tell exactly to whom events are happening or when they are happening. Even in relation to each other, time references shift suddenly back and forth. The vague pronoun references in the first stanza refer to unspecified situations and people to suggest vague generalizations about life and consciousness. These vagaries are given weight and specificity by lively back and forth movement into and out of specifics.

A key generalization in the first part of the poem is the sentence beginning, “The mind/ Is so hospitable, taking in everything.” Cut free of the conventions of narrative or lyric verse, Ashbery’s poetry has a certain exhilarating freedom and seems almost infinitely open to interpretation. In a sense, Ashbery has deconstructed his own work and left it to readers and critics to put the pieces back together, however they see fit.

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