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.

“Only love stays on the brain” reminded me of The Growling Wolf’s latest post, “Living (and Lovin’) in New York City”; the usual warning about the Growler’s stream-of-consciousness writing and defiant lack of correctness, political and otherwise, applies, but if you’re willing to dive in anyway, you might enjoy his impassioned meditation on love and the role it’s played in his life: “…and that was sex wasn’t it, but, dammit, I think I really did love this woman. But I’m not for sure. Only in reminiscence am I turning this passion and desire we had for each other into love.”


  1. he phrases like a jazzman
    That comment makes all the difference to how I read it. Thanks.
    Syringa is what they call lilac in Norway. I’m not sure if they spell it the same way, though.

  2. It’s “syren” in Danish. /sy’ʁæn/ (not sure about the second vowel) – not to be confused with “syren” /’syən/ – “the acid”.

  3. Where’d everybody go? I went to the supermarket and mine was the only car in the entire parking lot. The blogosphere is like a morgue. Everyone’s out building sandcastles and sunning themselves. Meanwhile bloggers are sitting practically in the dark, slaving away, thinking up new posts. Thinking up cheery alternative answers to the one comment a day that still comes in.
    I suppose the southern hemisphere is just asleep.

  4. Sorry, I got distracted by real life for a few hours. I’ll be right over!

  5. I’ve spent all day in the Berkshires at my grandson’s second birthday party. Now back, full of beer and ribs and too lazy to post. Don’t know where everybody else has been. The spammers have been busy, though—had to shoot dozens of them to get here.

  6. Shooting’s too good for them.

  7. I notice the Pullum thread is closed now. They seem to have been particularly attracted to that one. I wonder why.

  8. That’s why I closed it, and I too wonder why.

  9. An unusually straightforward narrative, for Ashbery, don’t you think? Although it gets more crystalline in the later sections.
    Syringa is now the genus name for lilac; but, as you may know, in the context of classical mythology Syrinx is one of those misfortunate nymphs metamorphosed to save their honor: in her case, into hollow reeds, which, cut and blown by her pursuer, became panpipes. Ashbery must be alluding to this in his mention of “the tossing reeds of that slow / Powerful stream.” And something about music that continues . . . .

  10. Bill Walderman says

    Looks like you’ll have to shoot a few more.
    Thanks for the Ashberry poem. I like the way he turns cliches into music.

  11. I like the way he turns cliches into music.
    Exactly! Mozart did the same thing (not that I’m calling Ashbery Mozartian).

  12. Ashbery has died; a fine obit in the NY Times.

  13. That first picture looks like he’s about to get a shotgun from under his chair and blow away the photographer.

  14. In a post called “Syringa,” I can’t believe I didn’t mention one of my favorite Basil Bunting poems, which I posted last year.

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