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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

STRANGE THINGS HAPPEN AT NIGHT, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography


"Strange Things Happen at Night" by John Ashbery thrives in its ambiguity, juxtaposing mundane observations with existential inquiries. It draws the reader into an almost surreal landscape, setting the stage with the directive, "prepare to go out into the city of your dreams." This line serves both as an invitation and a cautionary statement, asking the reader to engage but not to expect clarity or immediate understanding. The city of dreams could be literal or metaphorical, a setting ripe for exploration or perhaps a labyrinth of confusion.

A recurring theme is the idea of adjustment or adaptation: "At first they cannot see you. Later, the adjustment will be made." This adjustment could refer to myriad aspects of life-social, emotional, or otherwise. It reflects the notion that entering any new environment or situation necessitates a period of acclimation. Even the most intimate relationships are not immune to this, subtly hinted at with the line, "Your boyfriend sips bark tea." The boyfriend's choice of beverage could be viewed as an emblem of the 'strange' or unfamiliar elements that permeate every aspect of our lives, even within the realms we consider personal and safe.

The poem contemplates on expectation and reality, suggesting that "The number should've turned up by now." Whether this refers to a lottery ticket, a chance at success, or some other elusive metric, it encapsulates the sense of anticipation that permeates human life. But the number is impeded by uncontrollable elements, "the driving rain," and "the recession," representing natural and socioeconomic obstacles. The line "In any case there are two too many of us here" is imbued with a sense of urgency and existential dread. It suggests a world of limited resources and opportunities, where individuals are forced into cutthroat competition: "We must double up, or die."

This harsh reality is momentarily softened by the idea of a "practical if remote solution" and a scenic bicycle ride past "ribbons of people," and "grand hotels." Yet, these observations are made almost wistfully. They signify events or sights that are "thought imminent-not lost," yet their fleeting nature underscores the poem's overarching atmosphere of instability and impermanence.

Towards the end, the poem pivots to question its own thematic fabric. "But this isn't about living, is it? Or is it?" This self-reflective moment challenges the reader to consider what the poem is truly exploring. Is it a commentary on the absurdity and unpredictability of life? Or does it delve into the very essence of what living actually means? The lines that follow, "I mean, many suppers in the seven modes or grades, as many as can be made to last once the bosses and their beagles have passed through," offer a sobering look at social hierarchies and the struggle to find sustenance-both literal and metaphorical-once those with power have taken their share.

Ashbery's poem, like much of his work, doesn't provide definitive answers but poses questions that provoke thought. It captures a sense of dislocation, of yearning, and the complexity that accompanies any human endeavor, enveloped in an aura of dream-like uncertainty. In doing so, it holds up a mirror to the chaos and complexity of life itself.


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