John Ashbery

Hard Times by John Ashbery

Published in Shadow Train (1981), John Ashbery’s ‘Hard Times’ is about the poet’s take on the modern world and its future. It showcases people’s ignorance of the issues that troubles Ashbery the most.

‘Hard Times’ by John Ashbery is an open-ended poem about life in 1980s America. In this poem, Ashbery narrates his different views on the world. He describes how life is short, and it should be enjoyed and lived truly. Besides, the poem paints a dystopian and futuristic picture of the world which urges the readers to ponder on their decisions in life. It showcases the present mentality of the opportunistic people who care less to think about the “hell” they turned this world into. The speaker urges them to think about the world’s condition as long as there is time.

Hard Times by John Ashbery


Summary

‘Hard Times’ by John Ashbery is a poem where the speaker openly ponders upon life, mortality, and the way people live in the 20th-century world.

In the first verse, Ashbery’s speaker expresses that people have busy lives and miss out on spending time with the dear ones in their lives. He says that someday, they will have time, but by then, it will not matter anymore because life is short and random.

In the last two verses, the poet’s tone becomes dystopian as he describes how the planets around the earth are “decoration,” which speaks to the peculiar way in which the speaker thinks. Lastly, the speaker describes how the couple completed their trip to California successfully.

They can deem themselves as different from other people because they spent time together in California. It is clear whether they did not make memories they would cherish for the rest of their lives. Instead, the memories of living there would come to haunt them.

You can read the full poem here or watch John Ashbery reading ‘Hard Times’.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Trust me. The world is run on a shoestring.

(…)

In the future it will filter down through all the proceedings

In the first verse of ‘Hard Times,’ Ashbery’s tone is conversational and confident. He asks the readers to trust his judgment on the fact that the world is running on a thin line with limited resources—“shoestring”. The second line alludes to the fast-track work culture of modern times, which makes people too busy even to stay connected to their loved ones. According to the speaker, they will regret their business someday. Ashbery calls this oversaturated hustle culture to be “wasted minutes.”

In the end, the poet says that sometime in the future, these wasted minutes may filter down because people will grow older and find themselves reconnecting with the people in their life. However, the void of detachment will definitely be there.

Stanza Two

But by then it will be too late, the festive ambience

(…)

That the power of this climate is only to conserve itself.

In the second stanza, the poet continues the first verse by enjambing the last line with its opening line. The speaker explains that by the time people become conscious and wise about their life, it will be too late. He says that there will still be time for a “festive ambience,” however, this will not matter because the moment would have already passed by then.

In the following line, the speaker continues, no matter what, “they” (society) will tell “you,” something that everyone has known for years. They would say that the climate can only protect and save itself. In a way, Ashbery hints at the mortality of humankind by making an open statement about how the earth conserves itself as it has been doing for years. It means people are bound to grow old. They only have limited time in the world, and finally, they die.

Stanza Three

Whatever twists around it is decoration and can never

(…)

To tell however it gets down, that it does, at last.

In the third stanza, the poet reveals that this piece is a conversation between him and another person. It incorporates the feature of a dramatic monologue into the text. At the beginning of this section, the speaker describes how the planets revolving around the earth are mere “decoration.” They cannot be looked at as something separate.

The complexity of Ashbery’s thoughts about busy lives, growing old, and the earth are all laid out in this piece. The poet even minds asking, “Get it?” – to the listener to which the latter flashes their teeth. The listener replies that no matter what, things iron themselves out, “however it gets down, that it does, at last.”

Stanza Four

Once they made the great trip to California

(…)

In time, it gets to stand with the wind, but by then the night is closed off.

In the last verse, the poet’s voice shifts back to a third-person perspective. The speaker describes how “they” (a couple/friends) had a successful trip to California. He says that this trip may have made them different from others who were stuck in their busy lives.

The last line takes a dystopian tone in which the poet asserts that the world will one day “stand with the wind,” and by then, the night will be longer. It alludes to the first line where he describes how the world is bound by a “shoestring.” The overall tone, theme, and subject matter of the poem are pretty ambiguous and open-ended in nature. It can be interpreted as a commentary on modern life and culture.

Structure

The poem ‘Hard Times’ is written in free-verse. There is no regular rhyme scheme or meter in the poem. It consists of a total of 16 lines that are divided into four quatrains. Alongside that, the text is written from the first-person point of view.

The speaker of the poem is none other than the poet John Ashbery himself. He writes the poem with a conversational, dystopian, and cynical tone. His tone reflects his disgust on the modern way of living that he describes as, “The world is run on a shoestring.”

Literary Devices

The important literary devices used in Ashbery’s ‘Hard Times’ include:

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. For instance, the lines, “And pay dearly for those wasted minutes. Somewhere/ In the future it will filter down through all the proceedings,” “But by then it will be too late, the festive ambience/ Will linger on but it won’t matter. More or less,” etc., are connected internally.
  • Consonance: It occurs in “Trust me. The world is run on a shoestring”, “But by then it will be too late, the festive ambience,” etc.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds in neighboring words can be found in “time to,” “there is the darkness,” “To tell,” “that it does,” etc.
  • Metaphor: In the line, “The world is run on a shoestring,” the poet describes how the world (the people living there) is run on meager resources. Besides, there is a metaphorical reference to the earth as “hell” in the next line.
  • Imagery: Ashbery makes use of visual imagery in “Whatever twists around it is decoration and can never/ Be looked at as something isolated, apart. Get it? And/ He flashed a mouthful of aluminum teeth there in the darkness.” In these lines, the speaker depicts reality as a “decoration” of lies and the flashing of “aluminum teeth” (related to modern machinery).
  • Hyperbole: Ashbery begins the poem with a hyperbolic statement: “Trust me. The world is run on a shoestring.”


Historical Context

The poem ‘Hard Times’ appears in Ashbery’s collection Shadow Train which was published in 1981. John Ashbery was considered one of the influential American poets of the 20th-century. He won all the major awards literally for poetry in America. He won the Yale Younger Poets Prize (1956), National Book Award (1976), Pulitzer Prize in Poetry (1976), Robert Frost Medal (1995), etc. His name was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame in 2011.

One of his best-known poetry collections is Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975. His Some Trees (1956) was the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and A Wave (1984) was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Hard Times’ about?

John Ashbery’s poem ‘Hard Times’ is about the business and fast-track lifestyle of the modern era. Through this piece, the poet describes how people should try enjoying the present moment more because life is short and think more about the problem at hand – climate change, income inequality, consumerism, and so on.

What is the message of ‘Hard Times’?

The message of the poem is that even though we lead busy lives, we should try to connect with the people we love and spend time with them. Life is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated fully till there is time.

What is the tone of ‘Hard Times’?

The tone of the poem is dystopian, cynical, and conversational. This piece begins with a welcoming approach where the poet urges readers to trust his judgment on modernity. Later, the tone shifts to a more cynical one which reflects the poet’s growing distaste for the modern way of living.

What type of poem is ‘Hard Times’?

This poem is written in free-verse, without any regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. It consists of a total of four quatrains. Alongside that, the poem is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker who is none other than the poet himself.

What is the theme of ‘Hard Times’?

The theme of the poem is mortality, modernity, life, pessimism, anxiety, etc. This piece revolves around the poet’s views on the modern way of living.


Similar Poems

Readers who liked reading John Ashbery’s ‘Hard Times’ may also consider reading the following poems. They can also explore more John Ashbery poems as well.

You can also explore these raw anxiety poems.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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