The New Higher
You meant more than life to me. I lived through
you not knowing, not knowing I was living.
I learned that you called for me. I came to where
you were living, up a stair. There was no one there.
No one to appreciate me. The legality of it
upset a chair. Many times to celebrate
we were called together and where
we had been there was nothing there,
nothing that is anywhere. We passed obliquely,
leaving no stare. When the sun was done muttering,
in an optimistic way, it was time to leave that there.
Blithely passing in and out of where, blushing shyly
at the tag on the overcoat near the window where
the outside crept away, I put aside the there and now.
Now it was time to stumble anew,
blacking out when time came in the window.
There was not much of it left.
I laughed and put my hands shyly
across your eyes. Can you see now?
Yes I can see I am only in the where
where the blossoming stream takes off, under your window.
Go presently you said. Go from my window.
I am in love with your window I cannot undermine
it, I said.
John Ashbery, “The New Higher”, Where Shall I Wander. Manchester: Carcanet, 2005.
I like this poem's ambiguousness. "The New Higher" begins by suggesting a lively (‘life’, ‘lived’, ‘living’) relationship between an undefined ‘You’ and an equally undefined ‘I’, which find their place in the extremities of the first sentence of the first verse (‘You meant more than life you me’). The separation between the two is deepened not only by the strong caesura of the poem’s opening line, but also by the tension created by the enjambment, as well as by the (softer) caesura in the second verse. These, in turn, contribute to the creation of at least three possible scenarios: an ‘I’ that has lived through something, in a suggestion of difficulty (‘I lived through’); an ‘I’ that has lived through a you that did not know it, i.e., was unaware (‘I lived through/ you not knowing’); an ‘I’ that has lived through a ‘you’, with one of them not knowing that the ‘I’ was living in the process (‘I lived through/ you not knowing, not knowing I was living’). The possible metric emphasis on the first syllable of ‘knowing’ further contributes to this dismantling effect, by compromising the ‘not’ that precedes it. The reading process is constantly being interrupted from the start, in sense and in syntax, therefore allowing for the separate-yet-connected hints to sink in before the line has time to ask for continuation.
The ‘I’ and ‘You’ dynamics gives way to an equally undefined ‘we’ that is ‘together’. In fact, the object of the personal pronouns only makes its appearance in the tenth line of the first stanza (‘When the sun was done muttering’). The reader is then to pick up the loose ends: ‘passed obliquely’ most likely refers to the sun’s rays, with the most obvious pair being a window located ‘up a stair’. It is worth noting how ‘stair’ connects to the cluster of spatial description which had been formed by the internal rhyme with ‘chair’ and ‘there’, all of which setting the stage for a scene of voyeurism. Indeed, ‘There is no one’ in the room upstairs, but both the reader and the personified sun rays can see it all. As a matter of fact, the sun’s muttering points to a degree of secrecy, also hinted by the quietness of ‘leaving no stare’. Even the rays, free to come in and out, blush ‘shyly at the tag of the overcoat near the window’, in yet another intimation of too much seeing. ‘Can you see now?’.
Inês Rosa is a PhD student at the Program in Literary Theory (Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon). Her interest in poetry started with Shakespeare’s sonnets (read by Helen Vendler’s), but it was in Cambridge, while eating cakes and drinking tea, she began to talk and write about poems. Focused mainly on the work by Wordswort, sonets, Smith and Philip Larkin are also part of her topics of interest in poetry.
 All emphasis is mine.