1	Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
2	Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part
3	Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends
4	Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks
5	Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon
6	To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.
7	Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.
8	Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to
9	Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
10	Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?
11	All other things must change too.
12	The seasons are no longer what they once were,
13	But it is the nature of things to be seen only once,
14	As they happen along, bumping into other things, getting along
15	Somehow. That’s where Orpheus made his mistakes.
16	Of course Eurydice wanted to vanish into the shade;
17	She would have even if he hadn’t turned around.
18	No use standing there like a gray stone toga as the whole wheel
19	Of recorded history flashes past, struck dumb, unable to utter an intelligent
20	Comment on the most thought-provoking element in its train.
21	Only love stays on the brain, and something these people,
22	These other ones, call life. Singing accurately
23	So that the notes mount straight up out of the well of
24	Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers
25	Growing around the brink of the quarry, encapsulates
26	The different weights of the things.
27	                                     But it isn’t enough
28	To just go on singing. Orpheus realized this
29	And didn’t mind so much about his reward being in heaven
30	After the Bacchantes had torn him apart, driven
31	Half out of their minds by his music, what it was doing to them.
32	Some say it was for his treatment of Eurydice.
33	But probably the music had more to do with it, and
34	The way music passes, emblematic
35	Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it
36	And say it is good or bad. You must
37	Wait till it’s over. “The end crowns all,”
38	Meaning also that the “tableau”
39	Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,
40	That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;
41	It is a picture of flowing scenery, though living, mortal,
42	Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,
43	Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this
44	Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
45	Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
46	Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action
47	No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky
48	Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth
49	Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses
50	Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,
51	“I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me,
52	Though I can understand the language of birds, and
53	The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me.
54	Their jousting ends in the music much
55	As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm
56	And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.

(This poem gave me great joy yesterday, and I will simply underline a few lines below)

57	But how late to be regretting all this, even
58	Bearing in mind that regrets are always late, too late!
59	To which Orpheus, a bluish cloud with white contours,
60	Replies that these are of course not regrets at all,
61	Merely a careful, scholarly setting down of
62	Unquestioned facts, a record of pebbles along the way.
63	And no matter how all this disappeared,
64	Or got where it was going, it is no longer
65	Material for a poem. Its subject
66	Matters too much, and not enough, standing there helplessly
67	While the poem streaked by, its tail afire, a bad
68	Comet screaming hate and disaster, but so turned inward
69	That the meaning, good or other, can never
70	Become known. The singer thinks
71	Constructively, builds up his chant in progressive stages
72	Like a skyscraper, but at the last minute turns away.
73	The song is engulfed in an instant in blackness
74	Which must in turn flood the whole continent
75	With blackness, for it cannot see. The singer
76	Must then pass out of sight, not even relieved
77	Of the evil burthen of the words. Stellification
78	Is for the few, and comes about much later
79	When all record of these people and their lives
80	Has disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm.
81	And few are still interested in them. “But what about
82	So-and-so?” is still asked on occasion. But they lie
83	Frozen and out of touch until an arbitrary chorus
84	Speaks of a totally different incidents with a similar name
85	In those tale are hidden syllables
86	Of what happened so long before that
87	In some small town, one indifferent summer.
  • "Orpheus liked the glad personal quality"
  • "gullies, hummocks"
  • "Dim noon and rival the tiny, sparkling yellow flowers"
  • "Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses
    Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,
    "I'm a maverick."
    Nothing of this is happening to me,"
  • "To which Orpheus, a bluish cloud with white contours,"
  • "Merely a careful, scholarly setting down of
    Unquestioned facts, a record of pebbles along the way."
  • "While the poem streaked by, its tail afire, a bad
    Comet
    screaming hate and disaster, but so turned inward"
  • "Constructively, builds up his chant in progressive stages
    Like a skyscraper, but at the last minute turns away."
  • "Of the evil burthen of words. Stellification
    Is for the new, and comes about much later"
  • "Has disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm."

Houseboat Days (1977). The book following Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

Ashbery is a poet I generally can’t scan visually; I need to read slow and clear, and then it is all quiet brilliance. This one was grabbed me off the bat, however—perhaps because I had been reading Rilke’s Sonnets of Orpheus. It makes me want to read more poems with Orpheus in them, do some comprehensive study of Orpheus, the character Orpheus in Poetry. Syringa is the genus of lilacs. Syrinx is a nymph. Hollow branches, hollow reeds (44-47). There’s a James Merrill poem called “Syrinx,” from 1972. See Pascal’s Pensées, on man as “thinking reed”…

Last update: 14-Aug-20 16:57