John Ashbery is one of America’s most important living poets. To many, his work is as canonical and radically inventive as that of other English-language forebearers such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. He’s won nearly every major American award for poetry — in 1975, his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was awarded the so-called “triple crown of poetry,” winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. However, despite the massive critical recognition, his work is often met with opposition and skepticism as he consistently resists convention, classification, and interpretation.
His poems are best considered as experiences in language in and of themselves, to ask what an Ashbery poem “means” is as fruitless as asking what a cup of coffee “means.” In this way, John Ashbery frequently subverts the reader’s expectation of what a poem should look and feel like. In this poem, he takes on “the river,” a perhaps trite and cliche’d symbol in the world of poetry. By using a different proper noun river name in all but 1 of the 151 lines of this poem, one wonders if Ashbery isn’t “pulling a fast one” on the reader by simply trying to list as many rivers as he can think of. However, the accumulation of so many proper nouns devalues their status as rivers and a strange allegorical truth begins to pervade the poem, as in “A particle of mud in the Neckar / Does not turn it black.” or “The Inn / Does not remember better times, and the Merrimack’s / Galvanized.” Notice also how the two most repeated actions — flowing and freezing — can be interpreted in any number of metaphorical ways.
Due to its length, I’ve embedded the poem after the break.