John Ashbery’s “The One Thing That Can Save America” is a surreal exploration of life’s inevitable progressions. Using the motifs of America, the urban, love, and trees, the poem is a reflective statement on the meaning of life in an ever-changing environment. The poem is composed of four stanzas of variable length. Ashbery seems to try as hard as possible to ensure that this poem is as irregular as possible. There is no rhyme scheme, and there is absolutely no syllabic pattern to be found. In fact, almost no corresponding line among stanzas throughout the poem has the same number of syllables. Even when only considered in terms of structure, then, Ashbery’s aim seems to be to illustrate fragmentation and deliberate rule-breaking.
From the poem’s start, it seems that Ashbery wants its general theme to be very clear. The poem begins with the open question, “Is anything central?” (1). The details pertaining to this question, though, must be teased out. At first, it seems evident that the speaker is talking about America; with the title of the poem fresh in the reader’s mind, Ashbery gives him images of “rustic plantations” (3) and stereotypical names like “Elm Grove” (5). These images serve to conjure up the reader’s notions of America and subsequently demonstrate how watered down they really are. The phrase “flung out orchards” on line 2 suggests first that someone created the orchards, and then that that person was somehow sloppy or apathetic in doing so. “Urban forests” (3) is oxymoronic. “Story Book Farm” (5) is a play on the common “Stony Brook” place name found throughout America. These puns and other phrases emphasize the surreal disconnect caused by the ubiquitous repetition of such “American” names, and this process inevitably makes what one might first consider to be defining characteristics of America seem so common as to lose all meaning. With the phrase “overgrown suburbs,” Ashbery again mixes elements of urbanization with elements of nature, implying a similarity between the “natural” growth of suburbs and that of untamed brush. He then sarcastically compares suburban life with “civic pride” but “civil obscurity” (11), completing the circle and effectively likening life in such places to cheap futility.
At this point, it becomes clear that Ashbery is referring to the human experience. The phrase “my version of America” (12) suggests that the very fact that there are different versions of America for different people is indicative of the country’s lack of “central” characteristics. When he uses “the juice” (13) as a metaphor for “the central,” it is juxtaposed with lines about breakfast, transporting the reader to another setting in an almost visual manner. As soon as the reader parses “juice,” he is reading about breakfast. This effect is important because it underscores the feeling of haphazardly-linked emotions that is characteristic of the poem at large. It also constitutes another comparison of America (this time as a whole) to something organic as a product of trees. With “This morning as I walked out of your room” (14), the poem suddenly reveals a plot. The repetition of “light” on lines 16 and 17 constitutes the only rhyme in the entire poem, and it’s also jarring in that the reader likely expects a word like “darkness” thanks to the contrast between “backward” and “forward.” This has an effect of throwing the reader off just as he might begin to gain traction with the poem again. Then, after first comparing America to trees, then comparing the human experience to trees, Ashbery does the same with life itself. “Lumber” (19) is very important, since not only is lumber the “central” makeup and product of trees, it is also one of America’s central economic points of focus. Ashbery’s use of “lumber” here also seems to complete a description of the life cycle of a tree. It begins as part of one of many “Orchards flung out on the land,” and then it sheds fruit which is made into “juice,” until finally it is cut down and made into lumber, the raw “material… of lives” (19). This progression mirrors the human life cycle.
At the beginning of the third stanza, Ashbery makes what seems to be a confessional comment: “I know that I braid too much my own / Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me” (24-25). However, it is also part of the poem, and if we consider the theme to be the meaning of life, this confession takes on extra weight. It is as if, just as the poet is admitting how strangely sporadic the poem is getting, his speaker is using the sentence to make a deliberate argument about life.
The first three stanzas are composed largely of questions, but the fourth stanza reads like a long, desperate answer (albeit a vague and riddling one). For a moment, Ashbery drops the “tree” metaphor for life and exchanges it for “waiting / For a letter that never arrives” (37-38). Alas, what follows is unanswerable for Ashbery. If this final stanza is the unifying answer to the questions posed above, then it functions by wrapping up the many images in one long sentence at the stanza’s end:
“Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.” (44-49)
Ashbery, John. “The One Thing That Can Save America.” The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Ed. David Lehman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006. 823-24. Print.