John Ashbery’s “The System” Analyzed

I’ve brought up John Ashbery a few times in previous posts. Over the past year, I’ve read his fifth book of poems entitled Three Poems (yes, it is a whole book, but only three poems long).

These three poems are some of his most difficult and dense material (hence the year of non-continuous effort). Some parts can go on for pages without any stanza breaks, line breaks, or even paragraphs.

I want to dive into my favorite one, “The System.”

On John Ashbery

Before we start, Ashbery is part of the New York School. Here’s a reminder of some things you may have heard about him.

He uses pronouns in an interesting way. The pronouns often have no clear referent (he, but no one is mentioned). They tend to change throughout a poem. This can have a startling effect when done well.

He is also known for having a large amount of ambiguity and veiling of meaning. My favorite form this takes is in paradoxical language that sounds perfectly sensible in the context, but the harder you think about it, the less sense it makes. But then moving back out to the context, it makes sense again.

The above technique is why I’ve spent so much time with his work. “The System” in particular often evoked a strange sense that I had thought these exact thoughts, but they couldn’t be expressed. Then I would read some bit of nonsensical verbiage and realize it expressed the thought perfectly.

It is a sensation I’ve never gotten from any other poet (except maybe Wallace Stevens?) and is what started my fascination with him 12 years ago when I wrote a paper in high school analyzing a poem of his.

I think my teacher was a little shocked that I didn’t pick Poe or Frost like the other students who wanted a rhyming fairy tale to explain.

john ashbery

The System

The first hurdle for “The System” is its length. Most poems you can read 5 times in 5 minutes to get a feel for its main topics, images, form, etc, before thinking about its meaning.

This poem probably takes more than an hour to get through once. There is no way to go into with a feel for its content.

I think this is done on purpose. One of the recurring themes is examining the nature of knowledge and the feeling of hopelessness one can have floating in a confusing system of information. The poem already sets the reader up to experience this sensation with the form and length of the poem.

Now that we have some background information, I’ll go piece by piece through this thing and give my thoughts. This is a highly informal, unresearched, non-academic reaction to Ashbery’s “The System.”


The poem opens up with a semi-narration. There seem to be at least two distinct voices going on. One is personal, and the words come across as reflections on the person’s day as he gets ready for bed. It is elusive, so nothing sets up a scene that definitively:

As though this were just any old day…For instance, a jagged kind of mood that comes at the end of the day, lifting life into the truth of real pain for a few moments before subsiding in the usual irregular way, as things do.

The other voice is more grandiose and confident. This voice sets out to explain something to us as opposed to the first voice which we are meant to emotionally identify with. Examples of the second voice:

–these, I say, have hardly ever been looked at from a vantage point other than the historian’s and an arcane historian’s at that…the whole affair, will, I think, partake of and benefit from the enthusiasm…of the average, open-minded, intelligent person who has never interested himself before in these matters either from not having had the leisure to do so or from ignorance of their existence.

I’ve pulled these lines out of several pages of text, but I feel like when you focus on these, the beginning gives a solid preamble to the rest of the poem. We are going to be given some sort of retelling of history entangled with a person’s more private reflections on life.

The Great Impulse

So it starts at the beginning, with the “great impulse” all things (even atoms!) feel: the attraction to find a mate. The poem is quite straightforward in the grandiose voice for a while.

It explains how this impulse led to foolishness, chaos, and misunderstanding. The primary misunderstanding being the hope for unity and pure love as the only thing (probably a veiled reference to free love communes of the ’60s?).

But this couldn’t last forever, because there is no good without bad.

It seemed, just for a moment, that a new point had now been reached.

Ostensibly, this refers to the retelling of history, but it also begins a new segment which shifts to the second person. The poem focuses in on the reader’s life rather than the impersonal large-scale ideas of the previous section.

After placing you in a particular moment of your life (“a pass where turning back was unthinkable”), the pronoun shifts to “we” (a technique brought up in the beginning of this post).

This works wonderfully here because it lets the reader know that we’ve all been in this situation. Not only that, but we are all in this situation at every moment of our lives.

Time and Self

time in ashbery's the system

Time flows forward. We can’t go back. This segment continues the metaphor of constant progress and our conflicting opinions we have about this at different moments of life.

The narration continues zooming in on particulars.

We went from large scale to your personal feelings and now it continues to a very precise moment: Sunday, the last day of January. Focus shifts to beginnings.

The choice of day refers to the beginning of a year, the beginning of a new month, the beginning of a new week. The day passes, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

Now we come to why I really like this poem.

The subject turns from this entirely interior world to the manifestations of these anxieties in the exterior world. It starts by first noting how private and interior these thoughts are.

Just look out in the world. Everyone goes about their day as if none of these things concern them. How can we even tell it is real?

On the streets, in private places, they have no idea of the importance of these things. This exists only in our own minds, that is not in any place, nowhere. Possibly then it does not exist.

The poem starts diving deeper into the rabbit hole any mind let loose will start down. We shouldn’t be concerned with time and choices we make and leaving a mark on the world. We should add to these anxieties that maybe we can’t even know anything.

The universe is just too big and vast. We are too small; knowledge too fickle with so many imperfections in the world:

…that knowledge of the whole is impossible or at least so impractical as to be rarely or never feasible…

Maybe it’s even better to live in our own fantasies than be burdened with the knowledge of what the world is actually like.

Skepticism in Ashbery’s “The System”

The poem went down the dangerous path of extreme skepticism: can we ever know anything? It continues to darken as it then turns to the question of what purpose life has.

Why do anything? This gets chillingly stated as a rhetorical question amidst many other thoughts and metaphors:

…a life of suffering redeemed and annihilated at the end, and for what? For a casual moment of knowing that is here one minute and gone the next, almost before you were aware of it?

Many poets talk about life as a journey along a “path” or “road.” This gives the impression that there is clear forward motion and progress.

John Ashbery uses the term “track” which draws up two different ideas. One is that we have no control. We can’t choose anything or wander into the nearby woods.

The journey is fixed by the track ahead of time. Also, a runner’s track is an oval. There is no forward motion. You always loop back to the start.

Life as Career

The narrator laments that we are always lost. The track is not well lit. We have no idea where we’re going. Lots of people see the track and think they are no longer lost, but it is only an illusion.

This whole section is the metaphor “life as career.” The next section is “life as ritual.” In life as ritual, we strive to forget the past and only look forward.

The narration then moves on to two notions of happiness. The first type is “frontal,” and occurs naturally. It is abstract (or not?) and is that sensation of opening up when confronted with the profound beauty that is life. Unfortunately, these moments are rare and few people ever experience them.

The other type of happiness is latent/dormant.

This is happiness withheld after waiting for it. Many people spend their lives hunting for it when they can sense it is just around the corner. When you read Ashbery’s description, I think everyone recognizes a bit of themselves.

It is that thought: if I just had this one more thing, I’d be truly happy.

And a kind of panic develops, which for many becomes a permanent state of being, with all the appearances of a calm, purposeful, reflective life.


He then ties the forward motion motif to the happiness motif and the knowledge motif (pointing out the self-contradictory nature of radical skepticism as a philosophical stance) in an extended, breathtaking sentence:

…when the common sense of even an idiot would be enough to make him realize that nothing has stopped, that we and everything around us are moving forward continually, and that we are being modified constantly by the speed at which we travel and the regions through which we pass, so that merely to think of ourselves as having arrived at some final resting place is a contradiction of fundamental logic, since even the dullest of us knows enough to realize that he is ignorant of everything, including the basic issue of whether we are in fact moving at all or whether the concept of motion is something that can even be spoken of in connection with such ignorant beings as we, for whom the term ignorant is indeed perhaps an overstatement, implying as it does that something is known somewhere, whereas in reality we are not even sure of this: we in fact cannot aver with any degree of certainty that we are ignorant.

After some more discussion, the line of thought changes to offer us an out. He proposes a form of empiricism: “Yet this seems not quite right, a little too pat perhaps, and here again it is our senses that are of some use to us in distinguishing verity from falsehood.”

But this is difficult. Each day we’ll struggle to discern any truth at all. It will be “unsatisfactory.” We listen to the lessons life teaches us, and the truth makes its way in even if we don’t recognize it. Even if we can’t articulate it, we’ll come away changed by it.

We are then reminded that this is a discussion about the latent form of happiness. We can now see that it is a “fleshed-out, realized version of that ideal first kind, …, the faithful reflection which is truer than the original because more suited to us…”

If we achieve this happiness, we can forget about time and the changing seasons and all the chaotic and meaningless details and finally be at peace.

We have “twin urges” to go out into the world and act, breaking our happiness, and to remain at peace. When you wreck the peace, you struggle to get back, but everything has changed so you can’t make sense of it anymore.


This leads to a despair:

The whole world seems dyed the same melancholy hue. Nothing in it can arouse your feelings. Even the sun seems dead. And all because you succumbed to what seemed an innocent and perfectly natural craving, to have your cake and eat it too, forgetting that, widespread as it is, it cannot be excused on any human grounds because it cannot be realized.

Do not fear. What you had was real. John Ashbery again gives us comfort. “The darkness that surrounds you now does not exist, because it never had any independent existence: you created it out of the spleen and torment you felt.”

Hopefully, the overall form of the poem is becoming apparent at this point.

Ashbery starts down some line of thought and it wanders to an extreme and seemingly hopeless end. Then he reminds us where we started and offers consolation and a way around that terrible end.

It is kind of amazing how these disparate ideas flow together with all the metaphoric imagery to tie it together.

Ashbery’s Notion of Life

john ashbery the system analysis

The previous section ended by pulling ourselves out of the futility of knowledge and the search for happiness.

The next section begins by throwing us back into real life. This reminds me of the movie I Heart Huckabees in the separation of the philosophical and the real. We can achieve peace by solitary meditation, but as soon as we go back to living we lose that:

…back to the business of day-to-day living with all the tiresome mechanical problems that this implies. And it was just here that philosophy broke down completely and was of no use.

Real-world problems seem so different than the abstract problems we worry about in academic settings.

He proposes a labyrinth image for the path of our lives but returns with some optimism. It only seems the labyrinth directs our steps “but in reality it is you who are creating its pattern.”

The next segment returns to the Frost symbolism of a fork in the road and can be read as almost a meditation on the meaning and application of the idea in real life.

Ashbery points out that we take the straightforward path first and only after understanding its destination do we return to the convoluted and less traveled path.

The Road Less Traveled

In a previous part, I commented on the cyclical nature of using “track” instead of “path” and this returns as well.

After going down the less-traveled path you find out the two options actually join up at the end, and the end is actually the beginning where the fork was.

He goes on to condemn wallowing in the difficulties all this presents. Go out and live.

Do you really think that if you succeed in looking pathetic enough some kindly stranger will stop to ask your name and address and then steer you safely to your very door?

He then proposes many explanations for why you would stand there looking like that and references Robert Browning’s poem saying Childe Roland probably had that look as well.

As you change, words that have stayed the same take on new meanings.

You hope for a moment in the future where you can participate in the play being performed in front of you; for a time where artist, viewer, actor, director are all one and the same, but there is no “indication this moment is approaching.”

The Big Questions in Ashbery’s System

The poem switches back to the big universal questions.

Who am I after all, you say despairingly once again, to have merited so much attention on the part of the universe?

It moves to the grandiose language of dying and rising. I think this is a return to the knowledge issue: realizing everything you knew is wrong and revising your worldview based on this.

But “clouds of unhappiness still persist in the unseen mesh that draws around everything,” so this new life hasn’t changed anything.

The language here is what I consider quintessential Ashbery. He takes the small and personal and expands it into the gigantic. The personal is you waiting for a reply. Look how he makes the transition so naturally:

There is not much for you to do except wait in the anticipation of your inevitable reply. Inevitable, but so often postponed. Whole eras of history have sprung up in the gaps left by these pauses, dynasties, barbarian invasions and so on until the grass and shards stage, and still the answer is temporarily delayed.

Enter God

The reply comes, and it is God giving comfort. Yet you should not expect any more comfort in your actual existence from this.

Ashbery switches from a long period of “you” pronouns to “we” which softens the harshness of the section. We all have childish wants and get angry at delayed satisfaction. We give in to impulses.

After coming full circle on the path, you end up rejecting “oneness” in favor of a plurality of experiences and diversity.

Paradoxically, once embraced, you realize everyone is basically the same. He begins an extended movie metaphor. It starts out by claiming that the movie doesn’t lie.

It will show us things about ourselves we didn’t realize. It then moves on to classic Ashbery paradox.

That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures.

Final Part

In the last part, Ashbery comes back to the “new year” language.

It is a strange summary of what you experienced.

These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence.

It turns sort of David Lynch-esque. The film is maybe a mirror, and all the characters are played by the narrator. It is a return to the solipsism of the beginning and the poem itself comes full circle.