“Houseboat Days” is a free-verse lyric divided into two irregular stanzas, one of thirty-nine lines and one of twenty-nine. The title “Houseboat Days” comes from a 1929 National Geographic article by Florence H. Morden, “Houseboat Days in the Vale of Kashmir,” a phrase that seems to mingle the exotic with the ordinary.
“Houseboat Days” begins with an unattributed quotation, shifting abruptly from someone speaking, apparently in the immediate present, to a sentence placing that immediacy in the past on “that day.” “Day” echoes the title and signals time as a subject of the poem. With the verb “walk,” the poem moves into a new present. The setting, where blue hills are visible from a vantage point “along the shore,” gives readers an anchor as they bob along among sentences and phrases that appear not to make much sense. John Ashbery likes to link abstract and concrete terms in humorous and disorienting combinations.
In the first stanza, the pain, “like an explosion in the brain,” gives way to banal clichés: “life is various./ Life is beautiful.” Then Ashbery makes the mock portentous observation that one who reads that cliché wisdom “Knows what he wants, and what will befall.” The second stanza comes back to pain, implied in the “Pinpricks of rain” falling again. The constantly oscillating mind is in danger of letting the rain wash away that moving houseboat window in the first stanza...
(The entire section is 452 words.)