Paradoxes and Oxymorons

John Shoptaw: On "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"

The most popular poem in Shadow Train is its tantalizingly simple statement of poetics, "Paradoxes and Oxymorons." … The poem itself voices Ashbery’s populist impulse to reach the common reader, who thinks poems are constructed on many interpretive levels. There is frustration on both sides:

[Shoptaw cites the opening 4 lines.]

On the "elevl plain" of this communications system, the paradoxical pair of poem and reader stands in for two lovers. A few pronominal substitutions bring the romantic discourse to the surface: "Look at me talking to you," "You miss me, I miss you," and so on. This homoerotic subtext connects the poem to the envoy of "Song of Myself": "Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you." Ashbery gives a more explicit rendition of this romance in his suggestively titled "Or in My Throat" where he recommends poetry as an alternative to oral sex: "It’s clean, it’s relaxing, it doesn’t squirt juice all over" [Shadow Train (New York: Penguin, 1981), p. 25].

In the second quatrain of "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" the reader interrupts the poet, as in an interview, with a few questions. … Like his paradoxical formulation "on the outside looking out," the oxymoron "A deeper outside thing" is an apt description of Ashbery’s poetry, "not / Superficial," as he says in "Self-Portrait [in a Convex Mirror]," "but a visible core." What deepens Ashbery’s level playing field are his random [John] Cagean procedures, a hugely varied "division of labor" between the poet and language: "And before you know / It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters." If infinitely many monkeys are set before typewriters, the statistical paradox goes, they will sooner or later produce Shakespeare’s plays. Ashbery’s poem "has been played" like a record or a trick. But perhaps it is the reader’s trick as well. In the communications system, the ideal reader now resembles the Divine Paradox: "I think you exist," the poet asserts, "and then you aren’t there." In his final paradox, "the poem is you," varying the dedication "the poem is yours," Ashbery yields himself to the reader, who nevertheless continues to "miss" him.

From "Fearful Symmetries: Shadow Train" (Chapter 9) in On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1994) 255-256. 

Jody Norton on "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"

"Paradoxes and Oxymorons," while it doesn't express a Barthian or Pynchonian degree of interest in the construction of identity as a function of culture and history , is very much concerned with the poststructural question of the relation between language and identity. The paradox at the heart of "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" is that what is revealed, in a text that represents a subject, is the very representationality of that subject. Phrased as an oxymoron, the subject is true fiction.

This fiction of the subject, furthermore, is highly unstable. While the poem plays at being "plain"-spoken, it is too indeterminate for the speaker (objectified as "you") to comprehend. The speaker's response to his own question is evasive ("It is that") and vague ("other things"). And while he indirectly claims systematicity for poetic language in stanza two, that systematicity immediately turns out to involve "play." The transparency of the subject in language is "dreamed," a "role-pattern" which, like that of the Puritan saints, cannot be copied with assurance, since one's participation in "the division of grace" is "Without proof." "The poem, and ultimately the "you" that "The poem is," are "Open-ended," as readily lost as found "in the steam and chatter of typewriters."

The poem's deceptive appearance of formal regularity mimes the readily deconstructable coherence of its content (even as "The poem is you" deconstructs the illusion of the separability of form and content). The poem hints at hexameter, hints at accentual verse, and hints at end rhyme, without systematically practicing any of these. Its formal indeterminacy suggests the Postmodern "incredulity toward metanarratives" that the poem as narrative expresses. It is thus meta-ideologically transgressive-most importantly epistemologically: that the vaunted systematicity of language is only a mask for a deeper play implies that knowledge, conceived as truth in language, is not axiomatic but relative and contingent.

"Paradoxes and Oxymorons" suggests that identity is not only contingent, but also intertextual. Not only are "It," "you," and "I" interactive linguistic self-formations, "this poem," with its sense of language as play, represents subjectivity as comprised of multiple articulations, an "Open-ended" game that "before you know / It" "has been played once more."

Ashbery's speaker is deeply Romantic in visualizing an ideal correspondence between self and world-yet stringently Postmodern in depicting this world as ineradicably already representational, hence secondary, hence inconclusive. The Romantic pathos of the failure of connection between poetry and the subject, in stanza 1, is ironized by the punning sense of miss (to feel the lack of a person or thing) as misunderstanding (to lack meaning), and the oxymoronic, parodically sentimental allusion, in stanza 2, to the sad poem (no less nonsensical, on one level, than the idea of a sad math problem). The Romantic drive that continues to be shared by Ashbery's speaker, by Ashbery as a poet, and by other Contemporary poets, is the drive to comprehend one's subjectivity--the being/form, the being form, reflected to us from the shifting surfaces of our sociocultural waters. 

From Narcissus Sous Rature: Male Subjectivity in Contemporary American Literature. Copyright © 1999 by Associated University Presses, Inc.