My Philosophy of Life
by John Ashbery
“My Philosophy of Life” is a stream-of-consciousness meditation whose message—a personal “philosophy of life”—is illustrated through its details and abundance of turns, despite being from a speaker who seems to have little sense of clarity or conviction. It’s this little sense of clarity or conviction, however, that helps lead us to the philosophy itself: life can be full of turns, impermanence, and is subject to change with little warning, so it’s best to embrace whimsy, live our lives, and enjoy ourselves.
Although it may seem evasive on its surface, the poem is filled with a meandering collection of details that guide the reader to its overall message rather than stating that message outright. “Eating watermelon,” “going to the bathroom,” and “standing on a subway platform” are all fleeting activities, as fragrances and dust are intangible. The speaker makes abrupt shifts in topic and attitude throughout, as in the places where he appears to be straining to think of something to say: “Not a single idea emerges from it,” when he shifts from the room behind the bookshelf to the discussion of the book; “I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought,” when he shifts away from discussing the seashore; and in the opening, when he sets us up for a tangible philosophy of life but then avoids the answer: “it involved living the way philosophers live,/ according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones? // That was the hardest part, I admit. . .” He proceeds with a discussion of his new attitude, yet again remains evasive about specifics. He will let things “be what they are.” Shortly after, he likens his stumbling upon this new, not-yet-defined philosophy as one stumbles into a secret room behind a bookcase. “A fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender.” He considers the room’s cushions and reflects upon other cushions, but then snaps out of it and remembers a line from a book he’s never read. He considers the value of a philosophy at all if it only ends up in a book no one reads—one that’s covered with very fine dust.
When Ashbery writes, “It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore,” the only thing it has in common with the previous stanza is “fine,” and this marks another abrupt turn. Of vacationers who scribble notes on bathroom walls he asks, “Had they been coaxed in by principles, / and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?” before admitting he’ll let “things be what they are, sort of” again. There’s nothing more to do “against the winter cold and futility” than preserve fruit, which is “a human thing, and intelligent as well.” Essentially, we’re doing things in the face of our inevitable death, and we’re doing them because that’s what we do. The poem finishes with two turns into the absurd that punctuate the poem’s overall philosophy, the first a threat to a movie theater patron who has to be “flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him,” the other a faux-inspirational salute to the reader, encouraging us to “go out there/ and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too,” before closing with the joke, “Look out! There’s a big one. . .”
I’ve always loved this poem for the meandering, stream-of-consciousness way it produces a philosophy of whimsy from impermanence, and most of this love comes from the turns, or perhaps “the gaps between ideas.” It’s as if someone has asked the speaker to declare a philosophy and the speaker is having a conversation with himself in his library as he attempts to define one. Ultimately, the notion of even defining a personal philosophy seems absurd (what would you include? I think it would take more than a poem to define), but this poem has produced a clear message anyway, despite providing it in a roundabout way. We just have to “let things be what they are, sort of.”
Jason Bredle is the author of four books and three chapbooks, most recently Carnival and Smiles of the Unstoppable. Individual poems have appeared in Poems About Horses, 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, and Denver Quarterly, among other places. He lives in Chicago.