John Ashbery

What is Poetry? by John Ashbery

‘What is Poetry?’ by John Ashbery is a complex poem about poetry and what exactly it is. It uses Ashbery’s traditional obscure language and meaning. 

Readers are likely to walk away from this poem, on a first reading, feeling as though they didn’t understand what the poet was getting at. It takes time with Ashbery’s poems, to understand what he’s trying to accomplish. Therefore, do not get discouraged if his images, on a first reading, don’t make a great deal of sense. ‘What is Poetry’ is far more about feeling than meaning and therefore can be interpreted as more complicated than it truly is. 

What is Poetry? by John Ashbery


‘What is Poetry?’ by John Ashbery is a complicated poem about the nature of poetry.

The speaker spends the fourteen lines of this poem suggesting some things that could, in one way or another, define poetry. Rather than simply stating what they think poetry is, they provided a complicated collection of ideas that evoke the feelings of poetry. The poem ends with one final question, suggesting that poetry should reveal something, and that uses the traditional image of flowers. 

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-6

The medieval town, with frieze


Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

In the first lines of ‘What is Poetry?’ the speaker begins by suggesting a few initial images that could, in someone’s mind describe poetry. Or at least the way it makes people feel. They pose these questions, one after another, as a way of suggesting that there are no clear answers. Just like there are no solid or continues “Ideas, as in this poem.” The speaker is well aware of how their words are coming together, and the poet penned them this way to evoke the confused, interested, and amazing feelings one gets while reading poetry. 

Lines 7-14

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it


What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us–what?–some flowers soon?

In the next section of the poem, the speaker suggests that poetry is going back to images “as to a wife, leaving / The mistress we desire?” These interesting images are followed by one that is slightly easier to understand. The speaker talks about school and how the structure of education may have “combed out” something integral to the mind. The only thing left was a “field,” supposedly barren of what was there before. If one takes the time, they can “feel it.” The “it” in this line is likely poetry itself. 

Poetry has things to offer, but it doesn’t have all the answers, Ashbery seems to imply. It might give “us—what?” He asks. The answer could be, “some flowers soon?” This is suggested as though it might not be enough. 

Structure and Form

‘What is Poetry?’ by John Ashbery is a short fourteen-line poem that is divided into sets of two lines, known as couplets. These couplets are written in free verse. This means that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines do contain examples of rhyme though. For instance, “snow” which ends lines two and three, is an example of an exact rhyme, and “frieze” and “we” an example of a half-rhyme

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two. 
  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the bingeing of multiple words. For example, “some” and “soon” in line fourteen. 
  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Beautiful images? Trying to avoid” and “Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow.” 


What is the tone of ‘What is Poetry?’ 

The tone is questioning and determined. The speaker is trying to get somewhere with their words, but it’s not entirely clear where. They use questions to suggest the nature of poetry but never come to a solid conclusion. 

What is the purpose of ‘What is Poetry?’ 

The purpose is to explore the various interpretations of what poetry can be through images, the same way that poems use images to evoke certain feelings. 

What are the themes in ‘What is Poetry?’ 

The themes at work in this poem include the purpose of writing and reading poetry as well as creativity and the mind’s relationship to the world. As with much of Ashbery’s poetry, readers are going to have different interpretations of its content. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other John Ashbery poems. For example: 

  • The Instruction Manual’ by John Ashbery – 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 by John Ashbery – invites the reader to think about meaning in language through highlighting contradictions.
  • Some Trees’ by John Ashbury – explores themes that include understanding the world, relationships, and isolation.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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