John Ashbery Syringa Analysis Essay

The poem’s title authorizes us to surmise that the "sparking yellow flowers" are syringa, which is a form of saxifrage. As its name suggests, saxifrage is a flower that breaks rocks, which it does here at the brink of the quarry. But Orpheus’s lament breaks rocks, too; and the connection invests the lament with a sense of fecundity. The flower breaks rocks with its beauty, affirming life on a desolate terrain, which is the traditional burden of elegiac song. When song rivals the flowers, it turns the "fissure" of quarry into a generative source, "the well of dim noon." The poem presses the point by another play on "syringa," which is derived from "syrinx," the Greek word for panpipe. True, the meditative voice may make this generous acknowledgment of the power of song only in order to get beyond it, to say that "it isn’t enough / To just go on singing." But that voice says so, precisely, as it does go on singing, making a poem, "Syringa," that is named for the rock-breaking flower and prompted by loss.

From Lawrence Kramer, "’Syringa’: John Ashbery and Elliott Carter" in David Lehman, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1980), 262-263.


Poets and critics share in the necessity of invention. Ashbery’s artes poeticae [Latin: "poetics" in the sense of a poet’s concept of how poems are made] are emblems of invention and reinvention of the poet and poetry. In "Syringa," Ashbery explicitly invokes the myth of Orpheus, particularly the aspect focusing on renewal or re-membering after fragmentation or dismemberment. The poem’s title points to still another emblem of poetry, the reed, or what Syrinx was transformed into so as to escape being raped by Pan. The narrative of Syrinx is displaced by the story of Orpheus – her story is alluded to only at the end of the poem. Ashbery, thus, suggests there are two modes of poetry. On the one hand there is the Orphic whose

music passes, emblematic
Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it
And say it is good or bad.
You must
Wait till it’s over.

Ashbery, however, regards Orpheus with some approbation, depicting him as a comic-book figure in the opening lines and questioning the culture that allows the elitism and self-serving endeavors of the artist who acknowledges that "Stellification / Is for the few." On the other hand, there is the music of Syrinx, of whom only a name remains – the signature of both the poet and her new fragmented and dispersed poems that leave only these "hidden syllables" of her name. Or does Syrinx represent the demand that art transcend its artifice, to move from something loved to life itself? To invoke that utter tyransformation, as Syrinx did before Pan could seize her,

Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action
No more than this.

Though these grasses appear now as passive elements in nature, as David Bromwich notes, they are all that is left of an apocalyptic encounter. Ashbery locates a pastoral idyll on each side of the catastrophe. Syrinx, but for her name, has disappeared. … This moment of transformation is what the poet must write toward. Disappearing with the rise of the Apollonian mind and Orphic natural histories, Syrinx’s music represents the juncture of the sacred, violent metamorphosis, and of violence forestalled by invocation.

From James McCorkle, "John Ashbery’s Artes Poeticae of Self and Text" (Chapter 2) in The Still Performance: Writing, Self and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets (Charlottesville: U Virginia P, 1989), 81-82.


"Syringa" sends an Orpheus entirely its own into "the nature of things to seen only once, / As they happen along, bumping into other things." This Orpheus proves most adaptable, shifting and changing his songs to extol and then to exhaust many measures of art, nature, love, and time. And in the end, he is not torn apart; rather, he is simply used up, burned out like a star, and the poem continues to its finish without its Orpheus and yet with something of the beauty of his example, his fatal trajectory. Orpheus "is no longer ? Material for a poem," and so the poem finds other material. The reckless economy of poetry teaches that "stellification / Is for the few," that out of many figures, only a handful resonate with enough life in enough time to set us the kind of example, that is, an exemplary self, in search of which we originally resort to the writing and reading of poems. In order to find these, the imagination tries and squanders a great deal, living carelessly off its only capital: the real and real time. Th compact measures of bad poetry are niggardly; they refuse to waste words and try to pass off such parsimony as a virtue. Ashbery has taught me that I must waste words, lots of them, trying them against and upon one another, allowing them and their syntaxes to fall apart sometimes in order to find, not the true ones, but the ones that seem true at the time, the ones whose example I am willing to follow to their ultimately silent ends. The wasting and the falling apart are the circumstances, the medium of poetry.

From Donald Revell, "Purists Will Object: Some Meditations On Influence," in Susan M. Schultz, ed. The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: U Alabama P, 1995), 97-98.


The importance of imagination as it determines how we live and who we are in the world is another recurrent and strong theme in Ashbery's poetry. For Ashbery, the imagination has a role not only in our dreaming and make-believe but in the interpretations we put on our own histories and on our sense of what is possible (both in terms of the possibilities of doing and the possibilities of being).

The imagination is, in a way, our power to determine our own meaning. 

In order for meaning to be brought to bear on any given instance, some creativity must be applied. Lacking imagination, facts remain inert. This thematic conceit is expressed almost directly in "Summer."

There is a sound like the wind

Forgetting in the branches that means something

Nobody can translate. And there is a sobering "later on," 

When you consider what a thing meant, and put it down.

Many of Ashbery's poems are reflective and retrospective, written in the past tense and in the form of a reverie or reminiscence. In this context, we can take note of the wildness that often characterizes the scenes Ashbery depicts. The past is not static. Rather, the past is a canvas that is painted retrospectively in the poem -- by the speaker of the poem. 

We might pose this technique as one related to questions of meaning and how meaning is constructed. Doing so would help to connect Ashbery to post-modernist writers concerned with the instability and fluidity of knowledge (which includes knowledge of the self). 

Another important aspect of the retrospective style in Ashbery's poetry is the implicit comment that this formula makes on identity. Using a collective "we" repeatedly in his poetry, Ashbery generates a sense that the poems speak both of and to specific groups of people and the poems lend insight into the meaning of what these groups did in the past, also offering added context by dint of the fact that these past episodes are being discussed in the present. 

Again, there is idea here that imagination must be applied to facts in order to for the facts to gain meaning. Ashbery's recollections of past episodes are not mere re-tellings of facts. They are creations and inquiries, often literally posing questions. 

[...] We must first trick the idea

Into being, then dismantle it, 

Scattering the pieces on the wind, 

So that the old joy, modest as cake, as wine and friendship

Will stay with us at the last, backed by the night

Whose ruse gave it our final meaning. 

(From "Flowering Death")

Looking at Ashbery's poetry with an eye to the role that imagination plays in the construction of meaning and in memory presents one compelling way to interpret many of his poems. Thematically aligned with post-modernism, this recurrent concept also speaks to the power of his poetry to evoke the familiar and complex romance of nostalgic identity (or the overlap of nostalgia and identity). 

Furthermore, the premise of the conceit that puts imagination at the center of meaning carries overtones that suggest a profound uncertainty or contingency of meaning and knowledge. If we must apply creativity in order to determine our own meaning (i.e., the meaning of our lives or the nature of our identity), then aren't we making ourselves up -- imagining ourselves? 

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