(Poetry for Students)

“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and was later published in John Ashbery’s 1981 collection of poems Shadow Train, nominated for the American Book Award. A favorite both of the poet’s and of editors’, “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” has been widely anthologized. At one point Ashbery wanted the poem to be the title of the collection because he felt that it was the most accessible poem in the book. Written between March and mid-October 1979 in the poet’s newly acquired Victorian-era house in upstate New York, Shadow Train contains fifty sixteen-line poems that some critics have likened to a sonnet sequence. Unlike sonnets, which consist of fourteen lines, Ashbery’s poems have no set rhyme scheme, and Ashbery himself has said that he doesn’t much like sonnets.

Typical of many of Ashbery’s poems, and of much post-modern verse, it directs readers’ attention to the words themselves, placing the language’s materiality and the process of meaningmaking in the foreground. The poem, its speaker, and its readers all take part in this process. Paradoxes are statements that contain often inexplicable or contradictory elements that nonetheless may still be true in some way. For example, in the third line the speaker says of the poem, “You have it but you don’t have it.” Oxymorons are rhetorical figures in which contradictory terms are combined in a phrase, such as “jumbo shrimp,” or such as “A deeper outside thing” at the beginning of the ninth line in Ashbery’s poem.

Also typical of Ashbery’s poetry is the high level of abstraction and self-questioning. His lines often suggest or echo other lines or ideas that readers “think” they know, only to shift suddenly to something altogether different. This is why many critics and general readers are often at a loss to describe what Ashbery’s poems are “about.” In many ways he can be read as a poet with no “real” subjects. Because Ashbery’s poems rely heavily on associative thinking and connections between and among lines, images, and ideas are often tenuous at best, and critical interpretations of individual poems may yield little in the way of insight. Readers interested in grasping Ashbery’s work would be better served by reading a complete collection of his poems, treating them as part of the longer poem of Ashbery’s life’s work.

Stanza 1 Summary

(Poetry for Students)

Paradoxes and oxymorons are rhetorical figures, and by naming the poem after them Ashbery is setting up readers’ expectations to look for these figures. The first line is ironic, whether intentionally or not is unimportant. Any poem with the title “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” cannot be “concerned with language on a very plain level,” as these figures of speech are themselves often difficult to understand. Ashbery’s poems frequently contain a high degree of self-reflexivity, and this poem is no different. A poem is self-reflexive when it is its own subject, when it describes and explains itself. The speaker, who is one with the poem, directs readers to witness the poem talking to them and “scripts” the reader’s response: “You look out a window / Or pretend to fidget.” The image of “fidgeting” speaks to the intense selfconsciousness of the speaker and of human beings in general, especially those in romantic relationships. It echoes the kind of response someone might have in an awkward conversation with his or her lover. The next sentence, “You have it but you don’t have it,” is itself a paradox, that is, a statement that contains terms or ideas that on the surface appear to be irreconcilable. Ashbery here refers to the process of meaning-making in reading a poem. Readers, especially those unfamiliar with contemporary poetry, sometimes think they “get” the poem but then think they don’t. On a different level, these lines also echo the...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Stanza 2 Summary

(Poetry for Students)

The first line is silly and sentimental if readers think of poems as inanimate objects, which cannot feel or desire. More likely, Ashbery is poking fun at the idea of sentimentality. However, it also speaks, again, to the idea of meaning and comprehension, a reader’s own struggle to “possess” language, and a lover’s desire to possess another. The speaker refers back to his own statement in the first stanza when asking, “What’s a plain level?” Such self-interviewing draws readers deeper into the poem, forcing them to pay closer attention to their own thinking processes. The “that” refers to “plain level” itself. By stating, in essence, that a plain level is a plain level, Ashbery is being tautological, that is, redundant. “Other things” is left undefined. Continuing with his method of making statements and then questioning those very statements, Ashbery introduces the notion of “play,” again referring to the very thing that he is doing in the poem itself. The introduction of the “I” into the poem in the last line brings another element into play, the author. Ashbery builds meaning through suggestion and through asking questions, but he never answers them directly. The accumulation of statements and questions, of assertions and qualifications, of abstractions without referents, gives the poem texture, makes it dreamlike, surreal.

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Stanza 3 Summary

(Poetry for Students)

The “outside thing” in the first line might refer to the world outside the poem itself, the world from which the poem springs. “A dreamed rolepattern” suggests both structure and randomness, which the poet suggests is the stuff of “play.” The second and third lines are enigmas, that is, Ashbery gives no clue as to how “a dreamed rolepattern” and “the division of grace these long August days / Without proof” are similar. One possibility is that Ashbery finished composing the poem during August. In his endnotes on Shadow Train, John Shoptaw lists the composition date of “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” as July 29, which is close enough to support this theory. August is also considered by many to be the slowest month of the year, when summer is at its height. This would account for the description of the month as “long.” Ashbery underscores the poem’s own sense of play by making “Openended” its own sentence and enclosing it in the middle of a line. “The steam and chatter of typewriters” is the most concrete image in the entire poem and throws the reader into the world of things, as opposed to ideas.

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Stanza 4 Summary

(Poetry for Students)

The poet, the poem, and the reader are all in play in this final stanza. The “it” in the first line is, presumably, the poem. Ashbery appears to liken it to a piece of music, which can also be “played.” The “I” makes its second and final appearance in the first line of this stanza, thinking of “you,” presumably the reader. It is important to note that “you” can also mean the speaker himself. The use of the second person to address another part of the speaker has a rich history in poetry, and Ashbery plays with this convention. The poet writes with the idea of the reader in mind (“I think you exist only / To tease me into doing it”), an idea that changes as he composes the poem. The poem mimics the dance of lovers, a dance that frequently includes indecision, playfulness, and evolving attitudes. In the final lines, poem, reader, and speaker conflate into one entity. The processes, both of composing the poem and of reading the poem, are included in the idea of the poem.

(The entire section is 179 words.)