Ashbery’s skill with language, and the composition of contemporary verse, come through very clearly in this popular piece. ‘Knocking Around’ is filled with images that are likely to remind readers of the best and worst moments of their life and how the two sides (light and dark) depend on one another.
Explore Knocking Around
‘Knocking Around’ by John Ashbery is a complex poem about the duality of life, its pros, and cons, as well as the way that “you” live it.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker uses the first-person perspective to suggest that they are seeking a change in their life, looking for a way to abate the “soft storms of life and “rest secure.” As the poem progresses, the speaker describes the ways that human beings look back on the past and reframe it in a new way. They specifically cite the tulip mania in Holland and the Art Deco movement.
In the following lines, the speaker continues to discuss the ways that human beings consider the ups and downs of life. Ashbery uses a very interesting simile to compare the positives and negatives of life to the high and low tides in the ocean. Even though the ocean looks different, it is still the same ocean, just as life is the same no matter if it feels positive or negative. These lights and darks, like day and night, depending on one another.
The poem concludes with several more image-rich and interesting statements about the nature of life and the way that people choose to live it.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Knocking Around’ by John Ashbery is a four-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains six lines, the second: eight, the third: seventeen, and the fourth: ten lines. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a common feature in Ashbery’s poems, as it is within most contemporary poets’ work.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the second stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting examples and descriptions. Imagery should trigger the readers senses, inspiring them to imagine the scene in great detail. For example, “Noises men make to frighten themselves, / rest secure on the lip as a canyon as day / Died away.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “small” and “stays” in line two of the third stanza.
I really thought that drinking here would
Died away, and they would still be there the next morning.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker alludes to a change that he hoped to take place. He believed that “drinking here” will “start a new chain.” The following lines are filled with images that require some degree of analysis in order to interpret. Readers are likely to walk away from this first stanza feeling as though they have been allowed into the atmosphere of one person’s ideas but do not have a full understanding of what they are trying to convey.
The speaker hoped that a change would come into his life that would “update” “soft storms.” He hope that this change would bring him some relief from the struggles of everyday life, at least for a night. The cycle of nights and days is mentioned again in the next stanzas.
Nothing is very simple.
For part of life. And we congratulate them.
While considering their life, the speaker tries to remind the reader that “nothing is very simple.” You, the reader, and the speaker himself must remember that things disappear into the past so that they can be “remembered with affection.” They “become holy” as they are rediscovered in the present day. In these lines, he is considering the way in which past events take on a new light when they are considered from a future date. While in the past, they may have seemed chaotic, dangerous, and a struggle, this all changes.
The speaker specifically cites Art Deco and the “tulip mania” that occurred in Holland. These very different phenomena are both based on aestheticism. Now that they are in the past when people look back at them, they feel important. They feel like an integral part of life.
Each day as the sun wends its way
Outside your house, and leave shortly before dawn,
There is a striking transition between the second and third stanzas as the poet goes from considerations of the past and specific past events to a seemingly intimate depiction of morning and night. While using the second-person perspective, the speaker describes how “you” consider night and day. In the morning, you look back on the “accident of night” as though it were close to you. It’s in the same way that human beings look back on past events, even if they were not as “friend[ly]” as they seem now.
The night and all of its troubles are “forgotten,” and as you go about your day, it doesn’t matter that night will come again. Human beings have the ability to forget the hard moments and reframed them in order to move forward in their lives. The poet notes this through his description of human beings as “wrapped in” what seems to the speaker to be “like a positive, conscious choice.”
It doesn’t matter from one moment to the next that the flowers are covered in soot. Here, the poet uses a very evocative example of imagery to combine something beautiful with something that is dark and dirty. There is darkness in the world, seen in the poet’s previous references to night and the forgotten elements of the past.
In the ninth and tenth lines, the poet uses an interesting description of a man standing outside “your” house at night. This may be a reference to the dangers that night and darkness present and how, in the morning, they are forgotten in favor of the light and the future.
That nobody answers when you pick up the phone.
They depend on each other like the snow and the snowplow.
In the second part of the stanza, the poet addresses “you… all.” He is not speaking to one person, but many people, and perhaps all of humanity. The poet knows, as “you” do, that life is “like an ocean.” The tide is sometimes out and sometimes in. But, no matter if life is going well or poorly, it is the same life. This is compared in a similar to how the ocean is still the ocean no matter if the tide itself is in or out. It may look different, but it’s the same. The darkness and the light depend on each other, “like the snow and the snowplow” (another example of a simile).
It’s only after realizing this for a long time
And would make lousy characters in a novel.
In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker alludes to the realization of life’s ups and downs and how, when one accepts this, “you can make a chain of events like days.” The days come, one after another, draining the calendar of the time that one has on Earth. By the time one realizes what their life is made of (the positives and negatives the speaker has been discussing through the poem), anything will seem possible. You can live “any way you like out on those vague terraces.”
The poem concludes with the speaker alluding to the limited nature of time and how “we” can live it. We “live them passionately” though not perfectly nor with any type of organization that would make for a good “character” in a novel.
The theme of this poem is the complexities of life (its ups and downs) as well as time. That is, the limited time that human beings have on Earth. The speaker alludes to this through his complex use of imagery, the ways that one interprets life (the tide out or the tide in), and how the days are stung together until the calendar runs dry.
The purpose is to describe the time that human beings have had on Earth. That is, the way we struggle through the nights and dark times and then look back on the past with new eyes.
The speaker is unknown. They could be the poet himself but, without direct evidence that this is the case, it is better to assume that the poet was using a persona to narrate this poem. The vast majority of it is directed at “you,” an example of the use of the second-person narrative perspective.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other John Ashbery poems. For example:
- ‘The Instruction Manual’ – a poem that is constructed to express the struggles of a creative thinker in a factual, mundane task as opposed to the wonder that can be had by allowing their imagination to run free.
- ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ – invites the reader to think about meaning in language through highlighting contradictions.
- ‘Some Trees’ – explores themes that include understanding the world, relationships, and isolation.