The Truth Lies in Ambiguity

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This is an explication piece on "A Sedentary Existence" by John Ashbery

Submitted: April 13, 2017

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Content

Submitted: April 13, 2017

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Alejandro Juarez

Mrs. McCartney

English 101

February 23, 2017


 

“A Sedentary Existence”

By John Ashbery

 

Sometimes you overhear them discussing it: (1)

the truth --that thing I thought I was telling. (2)

What could it have been that I said? (3)

To be more or less like other men and women (4)

and then to not be at all --it’s (5)

 

like writing a book that is both beautiful and disgusting. (6)

Because we can’t do it now.  Yet this space (7)

between me and what I had to say (8)

is inspiring. There’s a freshness (9)

to the air; the crowds on Fifth Avenue (10)

are pertinent, and the days ahead, (11)

still formless, unseen. (12)

 

To be more or less unravelling (13)

one’s own kindness, noting (14)

the look on others’ faces, why (15)

that’s the ticket.  It is all the expression (16)

of today, and you know how we keep an eye on (17)

 

today. It left on a speeding ship. (18)


 

 

 

The Truth Lies in Ambiguity

John Ashbery is a poet who goes against the grain. He is a highly regarded poet, and has many accolades to his name. Known for his unique style of poetry writing, which is oftentimes difficult for the reader to understand, Ashbery’s “poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next, prompting some critics to praise his expressionist technique and others to accuse him of producing art that is unintelligible, even meaningless” (poetryfoundation.com 1). His pieces have been historically known to be difficult to read and understand; this holds true with “A Sedentary Existence.”  The poem was written in the early nineteen-nineties. The title, “A Sedentary Existence,” sets up the notion that people aren’t living life, they’ve become sedentary, or given up on moving forward, an idea which is further complicated in the rest of the poem.

The first line of the poem is shrouded in ambiguity. The speaker says Sometimes you overhear them discussing it, which alone is meaningless without the next line. The speaker uses this lack of clarity to set the tone for the rest of the poem. The meaning of overhearing according to Merriam-Webster is “to hear without the speaker's knowledge or intention”  (1). The speaker also uses the word “them.”  Without more context, the reader only can interpret “them” as other people. Continuing with this in mind, the speaker paints a grim image starting with line two, which gives slightly more detail and context to what the speaker is talking about. The second line begins with the truth and ends with that thing I thought I was telling. Although vague, it offers more context for the reader. The speaker stating that the truth was not what the speaker had imagined it to be, embodies the message that no one can ever know the whole truth. The speaker is building up towards the overall meaning behind the truth. Ashbery’s speaker continues: To be more or less like other men and women and then to not be at all, which hints at what he believes to be the “truth.”  The reader can interpret this line as meaning to be alive, and then dead. The speaker uses a simile to describe being alive, or being like other men and women; and then being dead as then to not be at all. Here, the speaker alludes to the awareness of an end, death. Everyone knows their existence is finite. This is powerful because this is a fate that everyone must come to terms with, and everyone handles this solemn truth differently.

The speaker leaves off the first stanza with one word, “it’s” before going to the next stanza, which reads almost conversationally, as if the speaker is pausing to think. The second stanza begins with two contrasting views, it’s like writing a book that is both beautiful and disgusting. He uses “beautiful” and “disgusting” to describe how life can be both a great gift, and also be melancholy because everyone knows their inevitable fate. This contrast also works as a window into the complexity of the human existence. How can one be alive and well, while knowing the morbid end of eventual death? The theme of overall ambiguity continues with the line seven when the speaker says, Because we can’t do it now. The reader can interpret this as meaning that a person cannot rewrite the past; time is constantly moving forward. “It” in the poem meaning today, and how today can never be rewritten.

The poem takes a shift in mood with the next three lines, which reads: Yet this space between me and what I had to say is inspiring. Here, the speaker points out the beauty of a new day, which gives new hope and meaning to everyone. The speaker then says There’s a freshness to the air. Freshness pertaining to the saying “fresh start,” as the speaker interpreted it as everyday having a freshness to it.

The speaker then goes on to break the ambiguity with the last lines of stanza two which read, the crowds on Fifth Avenue / Are pertinent, and the days ahead, still formless, unseen. The reader is given a specific location, instead of the vagueness which pervades the first two stanzas. The speaker uses “pertinent” to describe the crowds on Fifth Avenue. According to Merriam-Webster, pertinent means “having a clear decisive relevance to the matter in hand” (1). The reader’s interpretation of the uses of pertinet could be the crowds are meant to be there, since Fifth Avenue is usually a very populated area, given its location in New York City. The speaker highlights the “crowds” to highlight how many people get lost in the bustle of daily life, and don’t live their life to its fullest potential. The interpretation of the speaker's use of ”formless and unseen” shows how nobody knows the future.

The third stanza starts with a proposed solution: To be more or less unravelling / one’s own kindness, noting / the look on others’ faces, why / that’s the ticket. The speaker expresses the idea that the “ticket” is to spread kindness to the world. The speaker also adds to spread kindness, with others in mind, which the speaker signals with the phrase: noting / the look on others’ faces. A conclusion the reader can make from this is the speaker wants the reader to appreciate the present, and make the most of today, rather than focusing on the past. The last lines of stanza three read It is all the expression of today, and you know how we keep an eye on / today. The use of these lines demonstrates how the reader should live in the and focus on the present, but no one can truly live in the moment, since it's always changing. The speaker also says “you know” implying that this is nothing new to the reader, since the saying implies the reader has prior knowledge. This could mean that this answer to the speaker's statement was always available to the reader, but not visible. The answer being, no one can keep an on today, since it moves so fast.

The final line is short and to the point. The speaker leaves off from the third stanza saying  It left on a speeding ship. The reader can interpret “it” being today, and personifies time, saying it “left on a speeding ship.” The use of the adjective “speeding” can be correlated to time moving fast. The speaker used ship because usually when someone leaves on a ship, they’re gone forever, never to be seen again. Today itself only moves forward, no one can “keep an eye on today.” Today is short lived, it is not worth to try to understand it, but live in the moment, and make the best out of it is what the speaker was conveying to the reader.

John Ashbery has been known for making difficult and complicated poems. He uses ambiguity and concrete examples to present the reader a way to live their life, to avoid being sedentary. The reader can only assume the speaker was someone who has delved into the meaning of life and existence, and who values the present.









 

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Hotel LautreÌ Amont. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

“John Ashbery.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,

www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/john-ashbery. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

“Over Hearing.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/over%20hearing . Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

“Pertinent.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,

www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pertinent. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.


 

 

 

 

 


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