James McCorkle: On "Syringa"

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.

Lawrence Kramer: On "Syringa"

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, encapsulizes  

The different weights of the things . ..

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.