Poem of the Week, by John Ashbery

img_5354Growing up in the age of Darwinian elementary schools –the gym teacher would choose the two best athletes to captain every team, and one by one they would pick off first the good athletes, then the midlings, then the uncoordinated, until finally there was only one child remaining, huddled against the wall– I hated gym class. Not because I was bad at sports (I’m not) but because I can’t stand cruelty. And that little ritual was fundamentally cruel.

I don’t see the point of competition unless you’re competing with yourself, trying to get better at something you value, something you love. All the years I sat on bleachers cheering on my children, it was an effort to remember that I was supposed to cheer for their team and not any random child on the field who made a great goal, who ran fast, who helped lift up another player. There were times when the other parents glared at me because in my absentmindedness/idiocy I would cheer for the opposing team.

I still don’t like team sports. What I don’t like about them is exactly what I despise in my country today, which is the idea that there are winners and losers, and winning is what matters. What is happening in my country right now is so far beyond right vs. left. What is happening right now is wrong, and on some level, every single one of us knows it. No matter how you spin it, there is no excuse –not one, ever– to torture children and their families. Democracy is crumbling and fascism is rising and the elected officials who should stop it, who should call out injustice and hold abusers accountable, are silent despite our protests. This poem starts out sweet and ends up terrifying, and boy does it feel familiar. It doesn’t end this way, but I would like it too: We are all one here, and if one of us goes the other goes too. 



How to Continue, by John Ashbery

Oh there once was a woman 
and she kept a shop 
selling trinkets to tourists 
not far from a dock 
who came to see what life could be 
far back on the island. 

And it was always a party there 
always different but very nice 
New friends to give you advice 
or fall in love with you which is nice 
and each grew so perfectly from the other 
it was a marvel of poetry 
and irony 

And in this unsafe quarter 
much was scary and dirty 
but no one seemed to mind 
very much 
the parties went on from house to house 
There were friends and lovers galore 
all around the store 
There was moonshine in winter 
and starshine in summer 
and everybody was happy to have discovered 
what they discovered 

And then one day the ship sailed away 
There were no more dreamers just sleepers 
in heavy attitudes on the dock 
moving as if they knew how 
among the trinkets and the souvenirs 
the random shops of modern furniture 
and a gale came and said 
it is time to take all of you away 
from the tops of the trees to the little houses 
on little paths so startled 

And when it became time to go 
they none of them would leave without the other 
for they said we are all one here 
and if one of us goes the other will not go 
and the wind whispered it to the stars 
the people all got up to go 
and looked back on love


For more information on John Ashbery, please click here.


  1. Yvonne Pearson · June 22, 2018

    You quoted the lines “If one of us goes the other goes too,” but the poem reads “If one of us goes the other does not go.” Do you know which is accurate?


    • alisonmcghee · June 23, 2018

      Yvonne, thank you. I must have subconsciously changed the excerpt to what I wish it were. . . I’ve edited the post now.


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