Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended”

We spoke in class today about Ashbery’s poem “Soonest Mended”. As the article by Koethe and the interview with Poulin discussed, Ashbery’s poetry is full of descriptive imagery and often is told through the voice of a strong, observant yet frequently ambiguous narrator. Ashbery purposely leaves out specific information about the personal history of a narrator, leaving the reader instead to consider the imagery and setting of the poem through the narrator’s observations and emotions. Some questions I had while reading the Koethe article were about the relationship of the characters in “Soonest Mended” who make up the “we” that is referred to throughout the poem. In class, we discussed the possibility that “we” refers to a generation. Instead, I think the “we” is characterizing a specific relationship between two people. I read “Soonest Mended” as somewhat of a coming of age story, and this meaning can be applied whether we read “we” as a group or as individuals. When I read this poem, as well as others by Ashbery, obvious questions about the speakers arose as well as questions about the setting, meaning, and metaphors used. I think “Soonest Mended” is one of the more relatable poems we read, and many different stylistic aspects of Ashbery’s work as a whole are present throughout the poem.

“Soonest Mended” begins with a description of life in the past, it seems, for the speaker. Various cultural references are made to “heroines in Orlando Furioso” (l. 3), “Angelica, in the Ingres painting,” (l. 6), and “Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile,” (l.11). The speaker then seems to lament this presence of culture and the past, saying “Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused about how to receive this latest piece of information. Was it information? Weren’t we rather acting this out for someone else’s benefit, thoughts in a mind.” (l. 13-16). This realization and sudden questioning of meaning and purpose gives the reader a sense of the shift in tone in the poem, and indicates the passage of time.

Next, the speaker seems to experience somewhat of an epiphany, noting that problems that used to seem important, such as “food and the rent and bills to be paid,” (l.19), are now trivial. Here the pronoun “our” comes in to the poem, with the declaration, “to reduce all this to a small variant, to step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau-this was our ambition: to be small and clear and free,” (l.20-22). I marked these lines as I read as a possible allusion to a coming of age story, because they seem to characterize a realization of purpose and possibility for a speaker who has been living life in one way, but without real reason.

Lines such as “ holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off, with an occasional dream, a vision: the upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away,” (l. 27-30), and “we are all talkers it is true, but underneath the talk lies the moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor,” (34-37) imply a relationship to me. The imagery of holding on tightly to life as it makes sense and dreaming of someone, and the idea of talking without saying what is really meant, and instead saying things that are “untidy” and “simple” made me think of a relationship, perhaps between young people, that is changing as both people grow up. The relationships of characters in Ashbery’s poems can be difficult to understand because of the ambiguity of the speakers and other people, but physical and emotional descriptions such as these create more concrete images for the reader.

Finally, the idea of Ashbery’s characterization of freedom, characterized in Koethe’s article as his ability to “make palpable that ‘specific kind of freedom’, that sense that ‘we are both alive and free’ which is Ashbery’s poetry’s most distinctive characteristic and the one that makes it so valuable,” (Koethe 100), is present towards the end of “Soonest Mended”. The speaker goes on to describe the obstacles he or she faces after the realization of the desire to be “small and clear and free,” (l. 22). Ashbery writes, “These were moments, years, solid with reality, faces, nameable events, kisses, heroic acts, but like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression not to reassuring as though meaning could be cast aside some day when it had been outgrown,” (l. 52-56). These lines clarify the idea that change is inevitable and ultimately rewarding and life-shaping, and emphasizes Ashbery’s concept of life as not only a series of events and the passage of time but also the sensation of being alive, taking part in relationships and making decisions.



12 thoughts on “Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended”

  1. I like the Soonest mended. I also like a short bit that I’ve memorised:
    ‘If we never leave home, if we never travel beyond, if we never cross into darkness, we shall have no gifts to bring back’.
    I can’t actually remember now, where is this from, it isn’t Soonest mended though. Any ideas ?

    All the best from union jack

  2. Well, I like it too. I’ve copied and paste it into Google, but nothing relevant came up.. It would be good if you could remind yourself who wrote it as I would be keen to read the whole poem. Franco

  3. Sorry Franco, I can’t help you I’m afraid. Perhaps it was O’Hara who wrote that but I’m not 100% certain. As I said, I have memorised that short bit as I like it a lot but I can’t remember where is it from. If you do find out though, who is the author of those beautiful words, please do share it with us. Kind regards from cuff links

  4. The imagery of holding on tightly to life as it makes sense and dreaming of someone, and the idea of talking without saying what is really meant, and instead saying things that are “untidy” and “simple” made me think of a relationship, perhaps between young people, that is changing as both people grow up

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