A couple of days ago wood s lot quoted Ashbery’s “Syringa” in honor of the poet’s 82nd birthday; I wasn’t familiar with it, though it’s from a book I own (Houseboat Days—it was first published in Poetry in April 1977), but the more I read it over the deeper it sank in. It’s a long poem, which you can read here; I’ll quote the first section to give you a taste:
Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part
Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends
Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks
Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.
Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?
All other things must change too.
The seasons are no longer what they once were,
But it is the nature of things to be seen only once,
As they happen along, bumping into other things, getting along
Somehow. That’s where Orpheus made his mistake.
Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade;
She would have even if he hadn’t turned around.
No use standing there like a gray stone toga as the whole wheel
Of recorded history flashes past, struck dumb, unable to utter an intelligent
Comment on the most thought-provoking element in its train.
Only love stays on the brain, and something these people,
These other ones, call life. Singing accurately
So that the notes mount straight up out of the well of
Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers
Growing around the brink of the quarry, encapsulates
The different weights of the things.
Another tasty bit: “Stellification/ Is for the few, and comes about much later.” I can understand why people have a hard time with Ashbery—I used to myself—but I’ve come to value him more and more; he phrases like a jazzman.