The Three That Speak to Me: “They Knew What They Wanted”, “Getting Serious,” and “Insomnia”

Poems have the ability to connect people to the power of the written word in a way that books cannot. Often times, a shorter poem can result in a more thought-provoking the message, as the reader can spin a million interpretations and connections. I chose three very different poems from the 2009 volume of Best American Poetry ( pages/volumes/?id=2009) to analyze because they touch on many disparate American ideals – from gun-toting thieves and homes, to finding one’s soul. The humor and clever associations found in these poems make them intriguing to read. “They knew What They Wanted” by John Ashbery, “Getting Serious” by Alice Friman, and “Insomnia” by Linda Pastan eachevoke powerful images of subjects that we can relate to – growing old, sleepless nights, weddings, and love. The way they present their ideas, however, differs. The different uses of repetition, short stanzas, and images that we all familiar with, allows the message to be even more impactful and compelling to the reader.

The first poem I chose in the 2009 volume of The Best American Poetry is written by John Ashbery, the namesake of this website. John Ashbery’s “They Knew What They Wanted” is written like the collages he is known for drawing. Born in Rochester, NY in 1927, Ashbery died last year at the age of 90- a genius of modern poetry. A graduate of Harvard University, he won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1976 and was known for his wordplay, humor, and wit. He wrote that this poem is a collage of movie titles and every line begins with “They.” While it is clear his four-line stanzas do not follow any uniformity, each appears to loosely connect through a word, subject, or sentiment. That is what is so beautiful and clever about the poem: one wants to read another stanza to see how he brilliantly brings up difficult issues, Americanisms, guns, love, and marriage. There is no central theme but he draws on a compelling use of syntax, imagery, and metaphor so there does not need to be one. The poem starts off with the happy event of a wedding but alludes to a sinister “They” who came to the wedding to then “blow up America.” Not to be trusted, “They” loved and lived life but carried guns and met in the dark. This is Ashbery’s message to convey that “They” are part of everyday life, infiltrating weddings and shooting horses –making the author a fugitive. ()One of my favorite stanzas that made me laugh is, “They were sisters. They still call me Bruce.” The reader expects to read more about the sisters but instead the poem jumps to the author being named an average American name- just as if we were passing from one image on a collage to another. The most haunting line of the poem, however, is the last one- “They won’t forget” because, in today’s American world, we keep telling ourselves we will not forget those who die of gun violence. The reminder is in the poem itself and on the news and in our classroom.

The imagery and message in Alice Friman’s “Getting Serious” is equally as haunting Ashbery’s, as in this poem Friman searches for her soul as grows old. Friman was born in New York City in 1933,her seventh book from LSU due to be published in 2019. She has won many awards for her work over her long career including the Ezra Pound Poetry Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the 2012 Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. Friman wrote “Getting Serious” while reminiscing about her trip to Peru, and the slaughter of countless natives in the name of the Spanish Inquisition. The religious hypocrisy weighed heavily on her, the weight of it inspiring the poem’s title. I, however, read the poem completely differently, as a personal journey of one facing the finality of life. The literal search for Friman’s soul before she dies takes us through the tender years of her childhood, connecting us to memories of her years in Greece “where she grew so tall and straight,” and to her camp when she was “forever twelve”. One we can all identify the images is “Radio City Music Hall…and the Rockettes…long-legged and perfect.” Readers can identify with these nostalgic childhood memories as we search for their own soul amongst the memories they had of our camp or going to a show or “Mama’s can of Dutch Cleanser.” The final image depicts the end of Friman’s life by evoking the conflicted Odysseus passing the sirens tied to his mast, her heart “spirit[s] away my giddy soul, ears plugged and tied to the mast” as it carried her soul away to heaven. After searching through the happy remembrances of her youth, Friman’s heart finally takes her unwilling soul and succumbs to the inevitable end of life.

“Insomnia” by Linda Pastan is a poem that is relatable to everyone, as we have all experienced a night where we lie in bed and stare up the ceiling till the first rays of sunlight appear in the sky. Pastan grew up in New York City and graduated from Radcliffe College, she then went on to receive a MA from Brandeis University. She has published 12 volumes of poetry and one of her most recent was a collection of poems by the same title as this poem, Insomnia. Two of her books have been finalists for the National Book Award. Pastan often writes about growing old, and brings in strong imagery to support this point. “Insomnia” describes the frustration we all have when we cannot will ourselves to sleep. Through eight short two-line stanzas, Pastan evokes relatable images of “sleep like a good dog” and “lying on my back between cold sheets” where we can draw on the image of dog sleeping happily on the floor or on their bed versus the terrible sensation of staring up at the ceiling and being very aware of the cold sheets surrounding us in the dark of night. She attributes her insomnia to the fact that she is growing older, and that when she was younger she could easily fall asleep “the door to the future had not started to shut.” Pastan beautifully pulls in the image of the sunrise as a “stain in the east,” and that is when her body allows her to finally fall asleep. She uses the metaphor, “sleep, reluctant as a busy doctor” to emphasize how desperately she tried to call upon sleep to release her mind, but it ignored her just as the doctors today have no time for their patients. In this short and to the point poem, Pastan effectively draws the reader into a subject that we are all familiar with and dread – when the sun begins to rise and we have been denied the sleep that our body craves.

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