The Instruction Manual by John Ashbery

The Instruction Manual by John Ashbery is 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. The creative person is drawn to that imaginative world and prefers that wonder to the rigidity of “instruction[al]” “writ[ing].” In fact, the livelihood of a right imagination is showcased as too vivid and full of possibility to overlook, almost as if Ashbery is providing rationale for a person seeking to remain in a “dream” state. Creativity, in the end, is vastly important in the poem, and a person linked strongly to creativity will fall into their imagination without fault. These ideas are the driving forces of the poem. you can read the full poem here.


The Instruction Manual Analysis

Lines 1-7

At its core, this poem is a view into the “dream[ing]” of a creative mind that is being forced to do something factual and rigid, like “write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.” This might seem like a trivial concept, but for the person who prefers imagination, directing one’s talent to something with little room for imagination can prove quite a chore. This particular “write[r]” expresses this notion by “looking out of a window of the building” to “envy” the “people” in view. Clearly, this author is searching for an escape from the mundane nature of “the instruction manual.”

This mundane quality is provided as well in the sparse details that are provided for the setting. There is little information about where the narrator is “sit[ting]” or what “building” he occupies, though it is addressed with the article, “the,” to mean that there is a certain one that is being noted. Even the “people” who are “walking with an inner peace” do not have very much information provided—not even why the “write[r]” assumes they have this “inner peace.”

These details are provided on a very minimal basis, and also an odd one since these “people” are apparently only outside “of the building,” but the narrator says “they are so far away.” This is a statement of how far the narrator’s imagination extends, that he exists in a world so vast that it is “far” from reality.

By extension, this could indicate how out of place the narrator feels while trying to write a “manual.” To that narrator, “perhaps,” life is in imagination and wandering, so those who move about and pursue less rigid concepts are “far away” from the mundane triviality that exists in a world only of facts and “instruction.”

Because of this dislike for the task, the narrator “begin[s] to dream” by “leaning” toward those “people” who are “so far away” with thoughts of a different land of brilliant beauty—“Guadalajara” and “rose-colored flowers.”


Lines 8-43

Once the narrator goes into this “dream” world, things become much more vivid and “color[ful].” Literally no “color” is referenced about the room in which “the instruction manual” is being “writ[ten],” but this world of imagination delivers many—“blue,” “pink,” “green,” “yellow”… This creates both a depth and liveliness to the “dream” scenario that is ironic, given that this is a fictional place. Once more, then, Ashbery has allowed the reader to see that to the creative mind, imagination could be much more vivid and lovely than common life or something as rigid as an “instruction manual.”

As well, the verb choices of the section show a liveliness that puts the real world to shame. Whereas in the room where the narrator “write[s],” he “sit[s],” in this imaginative world, people are “skipping,” “parading,” and “laughing.” This is more specific than the “people” who caused the narrator “envy” in an earlier line, which indicates that even the best of his current world is mundane compared to his “dream” possibilities.

The specifics extend further, to the point that almost too-minute details are addressed in contrast to the scarce details of the first lines of the poem—like the hardly vivid description of “the building.” In particular in this section, the narrator notes the style of “slippers” someone is “wear[ing]” and a “boy” with “a toothpick in his teeth.” “[T]he musicians” “wear” “uniforms” that are not just “white,” but “creamy white,” and the “drinks” that are “sipp[ed]” are taken “through straws.” This is massive detail in comparison to the first lines of real-world concepts, and this is another example of how the narrator feels a world of “dream” is more striking than the real world.

An odd element of these lines, however, is that the narrator addresses these details as if he is in the “city,” though he admittedly “did not see” it, and as if this is happening to him rather than coming to be by his thoughts. Since this is his fictional world, he would logically be able to provide concrete dialogue for “the musicians,” rather than simply saying that their conversation is “perhaps” “[a]bout the weather.” Likewise, he wouldn’t have needed to “have lost sight of the young fellow with the toothpick” since he could place him wherever he wanted him to be.

This speaks of a lack of control that the creative person could have over their characters and worlds, as if they can dive into these “dream” worlds, but must wait for details to become clear. If such is the case, the imagined world mirrors the real world in this one element since details must unfold, but it still could outdo the real world because once they do unfold, they could be far more striking.

In fact, even a sad moment of this imagined world is expressed in this line: “Yet soon all this will cease, with the deepening of their years.” By adding this element, the narrator is basically letting the reader know two things. The first is that even in this “dream” world, a bit of reality will still be present. Otherwise, these people could stay as happy as they currently are forever. The other thing to note is that even the harsh truths of this imagined world, apparently, are more favorable than the real world since the narrator chooses to admit this sad concept instead of returning to “the instruction manual.”


Lines 44-74

The primary thing to note about this final description of the “dream” land is the confusion in perspective that surfaces when the narrator begins telling the story in first-person perspective. While phrasing like “[l]et us take this opportunity” can be explained away as the narrator engaging the reader and inviting them on another branch of the imagined journey, statements like “we thank her” and “[w]e have heard the music” are harder to brush aside. The narrator, in essence, has injected himself into this story. This could be commentary of the consuming quality of a “dream”—that the creative person has few boundaries in that world, even down to partaking in the experience themselves. In fact, the situation is so enticing that the narrator is tempted to “stay,” but “that we cannot do.”

It is unknown if by “we,” the narrator means the people noted in the “dream” or if he is including the reader as well. If the reader happens to be a part of this “we,” however, the story’s reach expands to indicate that the reader, too, can be swept away in a creative imagination—that the reader, too, can become a part of a “dream” to escape the commonness of average life.

The narrator, though, soon returns “to the instruction manual” by “a last breeze,” which is a very metaphoric way to erase the “dream” world from existence. Like a wind can scatter dust beyond recognition, this imagined “breeze”—or “perhaps” a true “breeze” from “the window” he is “leaning” toward”—forces the narrator to lose the visual of the imagined world.

Interestingly, this “instruction manual” is blamed for the “dream” as the narrator says that it “made” the “dream” occur. This indicates that a creative imagination must escape the rigidity of such a structured task, and because of this, the narrator had no choice but to think on other things. This is ironic since the “dream” is treated as a pleasant occurrence rather than something that was forced, but the idea holds that the need for the escape rests on the mundane nature of constructing an “instruction manual.”

This reveals a conflict between rigidness and mundane tasks to the creative mind, which seems to be the theme of the poem. A creative thinker embraces the imagination, and its refuge is far more preferable than boring facts and tedious “instruction.” Their “dreams” can be vivid and inclusive, with little “limit,” and those thoughts draw the creative mind in—particularly when the alternative focus is mundane. Given the expanse of the territory covered in the imagined world, it seems that not caving into this urge to “dream” is arguably a sad concept since so much vivid “color,” action, and happiness would be missed by not giving the time to “dream.” In this, the creative thinker can find validation for sinking into the right imaginative worlds.


About John Ashbery

Born in 1927, John Ashbery was a writer whose poetry and works have won numerous awards. These winnings include a Pulitzer Prize. His first book was published in 1956 and was called Some Trees. He died in 2017.

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