The World is a Kind of Blank, Though We All Wish Otherwise – Ashbery’s “Riddle Me”

Still thinking about the “Inhuman Mentors” idea, although it’s taken a recent turn.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

The world is a blank.  It doesn’t speak.  That means that Matthew Arnold, at times, and Swinburne were right in talking and thinking about Wordsworth’s poetry as this sort of great impossible quixotic fallacy-romp, in which Wordsworth not only invested nature with human qualities, but believed that nature contained these human qualities – as though Wordsworth believed, to put it another way, that truth resided in the world, and not in the ways we talk about the world.  Which is, I should add, plainly wrong (I believe), if at times wonderful and beautiful and satisfying.

Speed forward lots of years, and let’s think about the poetry of John Ashbery.  I think I can say that Ashbery’s poetry operates from a different principle than Wordsworth’s – namely, that nature is a blank, and forever unknowable, although this does not prevent us from dreaming it in certain moods, shapes, forms, etc. – or to put it another way, this does not prevent it from dreaming us into different moods, shapes, forms, etc.  But rather than talking about this too much, let’s look at a poem.  Since I’ve been reading “April Galleons” recently, here’s the second poem from that collection, called “Riddle Me” (and notice how the title gestures itself towards some fundamental conundrum that is also somehow deeply personal):


Rainy days are best,

There is some permanence in the angle

That things make with the ground;

In not taking off after apologies.

The speedometer’s at sundown.


Even as they spoke the sun was beginning to disappear behind a cloud.

All right so it’s better to have vague outlines

But wrapped, tightly, around one’s mood

Of something like vengeful joy.  And in the wood

It’s all the same too.


I think I liked you better when I seldom knew you.

But lovers are like hermits or cats: they

Don’t know when to come in, to stop

Breaking off twigs for dinner.

In the little station I waited for you


And shall, what with all the interest

I bear towards plans of yours and the future

Of stars it makes me thirsty

Just to go down on my knees looking

In the sawdust for joy.


June and the nippers will scarcely look our way.

And be bold then it’s then

This cloud imagines us and all that our story

Was ever going to be, and we catch up

To ourselves, but they are the selves of others.


And with it all the city starts to live

As a place where one can believe in moving

To a particular name and be there, and then

It’s more action falling back refreshed into death.

We can survive the storms, wearing us


Like rainbow hats, afraid to retrace steps

To the past that was only recently ours,

Afraid of finding a party there.

O in all your life were you ever teased

Like this, and it became your mind?


Where still some saunter on the bank in mixed

Plum shade and weary sun, resigned

To the installations on the opposite bank, we mix

Breathless greetings and tears and lately taste

The precious supplies.


The poem begins with a mood of appreciative restfulness.  We hear about a rainy day, how the rain itself and its hitting the ground suggests a kind of “permanence,”  The rain is inhuman – it does not take off after apologies, the way we humans do; and even the speedometer itself – a part of a cultural creation, an automobile – is “at sundown.”  The cultural world owes its existence to the natural world, and currently, in the movement of the poem, it’s as though the natural world has usurped the cultural – “The speedometer’s at sundown.”  One feels as if Ashbery, like anyone else, is somehow almost jealous of the natural world, jealous of its permanence, its endless fluctuations of change and “creativity.”  And one wonders if this is something that can be argued, something that possesses most poets – i.e. the impossible desire to somehow be the world, and not human.

Yet this mood of restfulness suddenly changes in the next stanza, for “Even as they spoke the sun was beginning to disappear behind a cloud.”  The movement of the sun seems to mildly trivialize what was being spoken about – the natural world again taking a precedence over the human, as if its very unknowability made it fundamentally prior to the human (this makes some sense).  And yet this very movement, of the sun disappearing behind a cloud, seems to influence the next line or the next thought, which reads, “All right so it’s better to have vague outlines” – as though contemplating the shape of the sun vanishing behind a cloud – in all its brightness and haze – begins to suggest a lesson in human terms, i.e. sometimes a certain indeterminateness can be beneficial, especially if it is “wrapped…around one’s mood”.  This all sounds somewhat hopelessly abstract – what I am saying is that here, Ashbery seems to draw a kind of lesson from the natural world, he seems to be using the natural world as an inhuman mentor, even while he is aware that the natural world does not conventionally speak.

Perhaps this is why the ambiguity of the final line of the second stanza is so utterly puzzling: “And in the wood / It’s all the same too.”  What does this sentence mean?  It’s as if, by calling attention to the sameness in the woods, Ashbery is calling attention to the sort of monotonous  unknowability of the world, the way it is perpetually and perenially and even boringly other to ourselves, and yet somehow, in a very strange way, instructive.  The sentence simultaneously gestures towards the way in which the world may mentor us – it is the same in the wood as it is with the sun and clouds instructing us strangely – and yet also gestures towards a kind of incredulity about the world ever teaching us anything we could somehow place in familiar language.

The third stanza reiterates this unknowability: the first line reads, “I think I liked you better when I seldom knew you.”  It’s as if Ashbery has once again drawn a kind of directly indirect “moral” from the world, and then applied this to a human relationship.  The world is unknowable, and it makes the poet realize that he liked a person better when the person was also less knowable.

Yet as we continue to read the poem, the world changes from being firstly unknowable to being firstly prior to us.  We first read of the poem’s persona “looking / In the sawdust for joy” – an improbable but understandable move, considering the earlier indications of the speaker of the poem somehow being mentored by the inhuman world.  What Ashbery is doing, really, is absolutely radically decentering us (this has been said a lot about his work), so that, in the fifth stanza, we come to realize that we are not only humbled by the fact that the world was there before us, and will be there after, but that our very selves  “are the selves of others.”  In a way, Ashbery seems to have transferred the unknowability of the world to or onto or into an idea of the human.  For, in that fifth stanza, it is the world – specifically, the clouds – that imagines us.  This is a wonderfully fascinating inversion of the Romantic idea that we imagine, and in imagining create the world.  Here, the world creates us.

And it is as if this very idea – that the world creates us, and not exactly the other way – that “the city starts to live / As a place where on can believe”.  As though this very notion allows the speaker to breathe more, to accept things, including the reality of death.  And yet all of it is so puzzling – like an enormous riddle.  Ashbery writes, “O in all your life were you ever teased / Like this, and it became your mind?”  We can read this psychologically – teasing as a form of mild bullying or joshing – but we can also read this as the tease being the world itself, the way it functions as a kind of oblique guidance system that never ever speaks.  And that this very guidance “became your mind.”  The radical otherness of ourselves.

The poem, understandably, therefore ends on a note of resignation – “Where still some…resigned / To the installations on the opposite bank”.  And yet – and this is a constant strength or even a kind of virtue of Ashbery – the awareness of death and the otherness of ourselves does not prevent him from invoking the fact that we still “taste / The precious supplies.”  There is of course a kind of irony that attends this taste, but in other way the taste seems, in the poem, to be still meaningful, still worth doing.  And so it seems the relationship between the inhuman and human, while in one way sobering our meanings, at the same time also allows for alternative meanings and even an awareness of “the precious supplies.”

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