"'They Dream Only of America"' has been much interpreted, especially by critics and poets associated with LANGUAGE poetry. For Andrew Ross the poem, and in turn the book, show 'how and why language has nothing at all to do with unmediated expression, except when it chooses to voice parodically the fallacy of such an idea'. For Bruce Andrews, putting his argument in the fragmented style of the book, "'Now he cared only about signs." Well, not true, not even here, but he does care very deeply and seems suspicious of their instrumental value.' The volume as a whole, as Andrews sees it, makes the argument that 'Description would be choiceless, "unintentional". Personhood might be mere transmission . . . But a critique in action of the representational capacity of language seems to reaffirm personhood, as choice itself.’ This gets the wrong end of the stick: the wrong end, one might say, of the blind man's cane.
Certainly the poem is centrally concerned with signs, consisting, as it does, of a series of now conventional images of America: Whitman's ('To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass'), Twain's ('hiding from darkness in barns / They can be grown ups now'), Chandler's ('And the murderer's ash tray is more easily'), Stevens's alliterative version ('The lake a lilac cube'), and the Beats' ('We could drive hundreds of miles / At night through dandelions') (TCO, 13). Ashbery cares about these signs. They are, after all, his literary background. The point of the poem is, however, to indicate what happens if such signs come to dominate. Thus whenever in the poem the speaker seems to be growing too fond of signs and symbols—at each point at which they seem in danger of preoccupying him—he receives a painful reminder that such fondness is inappropriate, dangerous even, insofar as it causes one to neglect the reality of the situation. Just at the point at which he gets carried away with Whitman's honeyed homoerotic pastoral, so at that point the honey'burns the throat' (TCO, 13). Likewise just as the Kerouac-like road-trip begins to exert its symbolic allure, so the driver's headache gets worse, and the travellers have to stop at a 'wire filling station' (TCO, 13). And most painfully of all, just as the speaker, seduced by the Freudian cigar, starts thinking of the wrong kind of 'key' ( of the key to the detective mystery, not the key to the door he is opening), so he stumbles and breaks his leg, The experience is painful enough to influence the poet's attitude to language, and so, fond as he is of signs and the symbolic worlds they conjure, he is reminded also that language must sometimes be more matter-of-fact, hence his prosaic account of the incident, '"I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen / Against the living room table . . ."’ (TCO, 13). To become too attached to signs, it would seem, is to become so detached from the world of objects that one is likely to do oneself an injury. One is likely, that is, to find oneself disabled.
"'They Dream Only of America"' is one of the strongest poems in The Tennis Court Oath. This is partly because it is more like the poems in Some Trees than most of the other pieces in Ashbery's second volume. Like 'The Picture of Little J.A.', the poem absorbs its literary background, constituting itself in a series of allusions which are the history of its coming into being. It is also both a more affectionate and a more intimate account of America. Shoptaw reads the poem as a love lyric, identifying the 'They' of the title as Ashbery and Martory dreaming of a projected visit to America. This is not the whole truth of the poem, but perhaps it helps us understand what that whole truth might be. If Ashbery is, in this poem, ‘dreaming of’ in the sense of yearning for America, then for once he has a meaningful link with the cultural condition so many of the poems are keen to address. Mills said of this cultural condition that 'mind and reality' have become 'two separate realms'. Which is as much as to say, from the poet's point of view, that '"They dream only of America"'. The implication of Andrews's account is that this is a state of affairs The Tennis Court Oath means to argue for, on the grounds that a language detached from reality is free to be manipulated by the user. The truth is more like the opposite: the blind man stumbling about his room and the speaker breaking his leg on the bed being symptoms of a linguistic condition to which the poet means to offer a cure.
from John Ashbery and American Poetry. Manchester University Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by David Herd