blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "‘They Dream Only of America’"

Alan Williamson (1984)

… How many movies have we all seen on the subject of runaway children who cross paths with a murderer – a subject whose appeal, surely, is to our own anxiety about the relation between normal venturesomeness and the completely out of bounds?

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily –
The lake a lilac cube.

When the children " can be grownups," the evidence of evil is at once "more easily" – and I think the missing word has to be "found" or "recognized." So that again it is precisely the recognition scene that is averted – averted by stopping time, freezing the journey of escape in an eternal present of pastoral beauty. And one notices how the same detail that makes the last line suggest an abstract painting also betrays the effect of psychic containment: the lake water held to the dimensions of a cube.

"‘They Dream Only of America’" is one of the most clearly structured poems in The Tennis Court Oath, possessing essentially a traditional double plot. The story of the children and the murderer reflects the shadowy story of the narrator’s friend, whose journey to lose himself in America, driving "hundreds of miles / At night through dandelions," becomes more and more terrible, as he takes everything that happens for a "sign" (presumably of impending evil, the broken leg mentioned in the last stanza). He ends, like the children earlier, paralyzed between alternatives of ecstasy and destructiveness: "There is nothing to do / For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it."

I do not mean to maintain that all interrupted stories in Ashbery can be ascribed to psychic censorship. Often, the uncertainties of paranoia, the elusivness of essentially nostalgic desires, provide more relevant explanations. My point is that it is the imitation of psychological tension – approach and avoidance, affirmation and denial – that gives Ashbery’s disjunctiveness a force far exceeding mere aesthetic novelty.

From Alan Williamson, "The Diffracting Diamond: Ashbery, Romanticism, and Ant-Art" (Chapter 6) in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1984) 121-122.

John Shoptaw (1994)

[Shoptaw’s study is especially valuable because he worked with Ashbery to obtain manuscripts of his poems, and on occasion he interviewed him about his intentions. He develops the idea that "because Ashbery leaves himself and his homosexuality out of his poetry, his poems misrepresent in a particular way which I will call ‘homotextual.’ Rather than simply hiding or revealing some homosexual content, these poems represent and ‘behave’ differently, no matter what their subject. With their distortions, evasions, omissions, obscurities, and discontinuities, Ashbery’s poems always have a homotextual dimension" (On the Outside Looking Out, p. 4).]

… [I]f "‘They Dream Only of America’" is only an assemblage of all-purpose stories (perhaps merely linguistic), what can it mean to its maker? How does the poet fit himself into his one-size-fits-all poem? The way Ashbery in particular figures in the poem may be deduced from certain biographical details [that Ashbery volunteered in answer to Shoptaw’s query]. The poem was written in Paris in the summer of 1957, probably on his thirtieth birthday (July 28). That day [French experimental poet and close friend] Pierre Martory, to whom [Ashbery’s second collection] The Tennis Court Oath is dedicated, made the luminous remark, "This honey is delicious / Though it burns the throat." In the summer of 1957 Ashbery was preparing for, and doubtless dreaming of, revisiting America; he did so from the fall of 1957 to the spring of 1958. Martory himself made a first, unplanned visit to America that spring. Though they traveled separately, the little poem looks forward to a fantastic voyage and an Edenic destination.

The misrepresentations of " ‘They Dream Only of America’" are homotextual. The "thirteen million pillars of grass" suggest not only Whitman’s Leaves of Grass but the "pillar of salt" to which Lot’s wife, no pillar of the community, was reduced for looking back on the destruction of Sodom. "Was the cigar a sign? / And what about the key?" In this cluttered poem, in which every personal pronoun except "she" is represented, the spermal "honey" and phallic props ("pillars," "key," "cigar," "leg") take on a parodic significance. The dismembered names of the perpetrators, "Ashbery"a nd "Martory," may be partially reconstructed from the line "And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily – ." The romantic secrecy of the fugitive gay lovers is parallel here to the French Resistance (Martory fought in its ranks, after his escape to Algeria) waiting for America’s liberation. Though the term "gay liberation" had not yet been coined, this poem seems tow ait for its minting. The utopian "American dream" here fantasizes a time and a place where gay lovers could come out of their lilac cubes.

But the homotextual orientation of Ashbery’s misrepresentations, even with biographical particulars smoked out, does not finally crack or unlock " ‘They Dream Only of America.’ " Ashbery’s poetry contains no secret to which only an inner circle of readers has access. The compound of inside and outside in this poem is highly unstable. Or one thing, the outside is displaced into the imagined future or the remembered past, or even into the present – once looked forward to or some day to be looked back upon. When and where is (or was or will be) the liberation? Was it when the American Ashbery arrived in Paris? Will it be when "they" arrive in America? (But Ashbery had left the United States partly for relief from its repressive political climate.) In the barns of Ashbery’s childhood in rural upstate New York? In the dandified countryside of Martory’s prewar France? It is always elsewhere, a state better dreamt-of than reached. "they" do not wait in "hope" but in "horror" of the "liberation." Remaining in romantic seclusion, creating the illusion of hidden meanings, may in fact be preferable to the "horror" of exposure, where love and potry may be impossible. But is "he" or are "they" even in "there" while "we" readers investigate out here? In the fifth stanza, "He" himself is elected to investigate, peering inside with us, uncovering not the literal truth, or a body, but a letter. Yet if liberation is forever out of reach, pleasure is not. "’They Dream Only of America’" continually intrigues with its narrow escapes and near disguises. The ceaseless activity of its tenses, discourses, and roles presents ample evidence that the fugitives’ love is there to stay.

From John Shoptaw, "Private Investigations: The Tennis Court Oath" (Chapter 2) in On the Outside Looking Out (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1994), 65-66.

Andrew Ross

In reading such poems, we are shown how and why language has nothing at all to do with unmediated expression, except when it chooses to voice parodically the fallacy of such an idea. This paradox is best demonstrated in some of the most celebrated lines of The Tennis Court Oath, the opening of "They Dream Only of America":

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
"This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.

Four different, and successively more marked, levels of conventionality are stressed here, from the general assertion of the freestanding first line to the specific, quoted, emphasized, and dependent clause of the fourth; each line is decontextualized, automatically, as it is succeeded by the next. Because of the syntactical "rhyme" between the two couplets, moreover, the stanza is allowed to flaunt its own symmetry. But it is only under the pressure of this stanzaic logic that the aching lyricism of the first couplet prefigures and is thrown up against the deadpan irony of the second. Semantically, of course, the reader has the choice of naturalizing the various elements of meaning suggested in these lines. An "American dream" (exceptionalist—"they dream only") of pastoral innocence and plenitude (the land of milk and "honey") is stripped once again of its hopes of a Whitmanesque pluralism by the reality and sheer numericality of mass culture ("thirteen million"), while the new consumer religion either chemically simulates or doctors "natural" products in ways that are harmful to our health ("burns the throat"). To recuperate the world of meaning in this way is, however, to short-circuit those strategies of poetic artifice which offer us less in the way of interpretive freedom than does the acte gratuite of the more discontinuous areas of The Tennis Court Oath. What we are asked to accept and acknowledge in this passage are the various levels of artifice and convention which separate us from any unmediated expression of sympathy with, or complaint against, the protocols of mass culture. To recognize this is doubly important if it involves the reader in critically following through exactly the same procedures by which we constitute ourselves conventionally as citizens in a mass consumer society. Writing and reading at the beginning of the 1960s, this consumer imagination made all the difference for involved readers who were not only aware of the limited democracy of the historical avant-garde project but also responsive to the demotic passion of those artists and writers, like Ashbery, busy revising the medium forty years later.

from "Taking the Tennis Court Oath." In Schultz, Susan M. (ed.) The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995.

Donald Revell

In writing, Ashbery teaches me to desire not an increase in my individual portion of imaginative freedom but an increase in the stock of freedom available to anyone.

                                    There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.

And I am lost without you.
    ("They Dream Only of America," TCO 13)

Because freedom is intentionless, its accomplishments, "our liberation," require nothing of us. Yet in a further variation of inversion technique, Ashbery establishes this nothing as neither nugatory nor still. It requires great effort, a redoubling of negative capability, to articulate phrases, lines, and stanzas without resort to the reassurances and little victories of expressed intent. That is why Ashbery poises the line "There is nothing to do" as a positive, proposing absolute indeterminacy as a task—the nothing that somehow must be done. Here, as everywhere in The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery reminds me that the imagination is not an inward quality in search of expression but, rather, an event that occurs when perception contacts the world with the force of desire in the form of words or paint or sounds. Imagination defines itself in what it does, participating in liberty as liberty. Desire declares the unsatisfactoriness of the present moment (emotion "recollected" is not emotion) and directs the mind toward its liberation from that state. And where can the mind go but to the world, and how can it travel but indeterminately, dissatisfaction being the sum of what has been determined? Just as "nothing" is a task, so waiting is an activity, a pioneering. The imagination happens, poems happen in the time pried open by waiting, time made porous to accidents and to new juxtapositions by the deferral of particularity. There, words contrive new syntaxes and thus new meanings because none has been prescribed. There, the mind moves more ways than one.

This multiplicity is the primary prerequisite of imagination, a "horror" owing to the utter defenselessness it prolongs and prolongs. Where there is no horror, no uninterpreted, there is only the awful and unacceptable condition of certainty: that isolated, final, and feckless utterance "And I am lost without you." If I have no single destination, I cannot be lost, only en route. As long as I am waiting, anything may yet arrive. As America failed in the moment it became an ideality instead of a plurality of discrete, then overlapping, events (a city on a hill instead of an explorer's beautiful misinterpretation), voices and poems fail when they reconcile themselves to a solitary posture. Closure victimizes thought. Something victimizes the nothing in which and by which our liberation persists. Every final word expresses defeat. John Ashbery does not deny that a final word always gets said. The trick is to prolong the dream, the recital, the ice storm, all the unfinished originals. The trick is to write as far into the accidents as one can before collapsing into statement. Poetry stops where nothing cannot be said any longer or in only one way: "And I am lost without you."

from "Some Meditations on Influence." In Schultz, Susan M. (ed.) The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995.

David Lehman (1998)

… Shoptaw’s allegorical interpretation of "They Dream Only of America" is a bit like the symbol-hunting of the New Criticism at its most exasperating. It is not that the interpretation is wrong: it is that the poem gives rise to any number of competing narratives, which the reader may be prompted to provide. The poem can be read less tendentiously and less fancifully as an allegory about growing up; as in a particularly eerie kind of fairy tale, there is an emphasis on clues and signs, only here the horror of imprisonment is matched by that of the promised liberation. But I prefer to read the poem as precisely a truncated narrative lacking a key, a dream that haunts the waking person because it exists only in fragments whose relation to one another remains mysterious. The strangeness of the adverb in the line,

"please," he asked willingly,

is not easily explained and that is one of its virtues. And if one notices that

"This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat"

is metaphorically a taste of brandy, and if one learns that this was something Martory said in all innocence at breakfast one morning, one still has not explained the effect of trembling significance these lines achieve.

From David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 157-158.

David Herd

"'They Dream Only of America"' has been much interpreted, especially by critics and poets associated with LANGUAGE poetry. For Andrew Ross the poem, and in turn the book, show 'how and why language has nothing at all to do with unmediated expression, except when it chooses to voice parodically the fallacy of such an idea'. For Bruce Andrews, putting his argument in the fragmented style of the book, "'Now he cared only about signs." Well, not true, not even here, but he does care very deeply and seems suspicious of their instrumental value.' The volume as a whole, as Andrews sees it, makes the argument that 'Description would be choiceless, "unintentional". Personhood might be mere transmission . . . But a critique in action of the representational capacity of language seems to reaffirm personhood, as choice itself.’ This gets the wrong end of the stick: the wrong end, one might say, of the blind man's cane.

Certainly the poem is centrally concerned with signs, consisting, as it does, of a series of now conventional images of America: Whitman's ('To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass'), Twain's ('hiding from darkness in barns / They can be grown ups now'), Chandler's ('And the murderer's ash tray is more easily'), Stevens's alliterative version ('The lake a lilac cube'), and the Beats' ('We could drive hundreds of miles / At night through dandelions') (TCO, 13). Ashbery cares about these signs. They are, after all, his literary background. The point of the poem is, however, to indicate what happens if such signs come to dominate. Thus whenever in the poem the speaker seems to be growing too fond of signs and symbols—at each point at which they seem in danger of preoccupying him—he receives a painful reminder that such fondness is inappropriate, dangerous even, insofar as it causes one to neglect the reality of the situation. Just at the point at which he gets carried away with Whitman's honeyed homoerotic pastoral, so at that point the honey 'burns the throat' (TCO, 13). Likewise just as the Kerouac-like road-trip begins to exert its symbolic allure, so the driver's headache gets worse, and the travellers have to stop at a 'wire filling station' (TCO, 13). And most painfully of all, just as the speaker, seduced by the Freudian cigar, starts thinking of the wrong kind of 'key' ( of the key to the detective mystery, not the key to the door he is opening), so he stumbles and breaks his leg, The experience is painful enough to influence the poet's attitude to language, and so, fond as he is of signs and the symbolic worlds they conjure, he is reminded also that language must sometimes be more matter-of-fact, hence his prosaic account of the incident, '"I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen / Against the living room table . . ."’ (TCO, 13). To become too attached to signs, it would seem, is to become so detached from the world of objects that one is likely to do oneself an injury. One is likely, that is, to find oneself disabled.

"'They Dream Only of America"' is one of the strongest poems in The Tennis Court Oath. This is partly because it is more like the poems in Some Trees than most of the other pieces in Ashbery's second volume. Like 'The Picture of Little J.A.', the poem absorbs its literary background, constituting itself in a series of allusions which are the history of its coming into being. It is also both a more affectionate and a more intimate account of America. Shoptaw reads the poem as a love lyric, identifying the 'They' of the title as Ashbery and Martory dreaming of a projected visit to America. This is not the whole truth of the poem, but perhaps it helps us understand what that whole truth might be. If Ashbery is, in this poem, ‘dreaming of’ in the sense of yearning for America, then for once he has a meaningful link with the cultural condition so many of the poems are keen to address. Mills said of this cultural condition that 'mind and reality' have become 'two separate realms'. Which is as much as to say, from the poet's point of view, that '"They dream only of America"'. The implication of Andrews's account is that this is a state of affairs The Tennis Court Oath means to argue for, on the grounds that a language detached from reality is free to be manipulated by the user. The truth is more like the opposite: the blind man stumbling about his room and the speaker breaking his leg on the bed being symptoms of a linguistic condition to which the poet means to offer a cure.

from John Ashbery and American Poetry. Manchester University Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by David Herd

Hazel Smith

In this poem there is one very obvious metonymic string (burns/ash tray/cigar) and the possibility of one or two others (sign/key), but on the whole new metonymies proliferate, constantly pushing the poem outward. There is therefore considerably less sensation of the poem being pulled back into metaphorical cohesion than there is, for example, in 'Chez Jane'. A number of critics have attempted to read this poem metaphorically, but the poem does not lend itself as a whole to metaphorical interpretation. ‘"They Dream Only of America"’, inhabits the extremes of deconstruction; it does not move in and out of deconstruction and reconstruction.

from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.

Return to John Ashbery