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(28 July 1927 / Rochester, New York)

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Poem at the New Year

Once, out on the water in the clear, early nineteenth-century twilight,
you asked time to suspend its flight. If wishes could beget more than sobs,
that would be my wish for you, my darling, my angel. But other
principles prevail in this glum haven, don't they? If that's what it is.

Then the wind fell of its own accord.
We went out and saw that it had actually happened.
The season stood motionless, alert. How still the dropp was
on the burr I know not. I come all
packaged and serene, yet I keep losing things.

I wonder about Australia. Is it anything about Canada?
Do pigeons flutter? Is there a strangeness there, to complete
the one in me? Or must I relearn my filing system?
Can we trust others to indict us
who see us only in the evening rush hour,
and never stop to think? O, I was so bright about you,
my songbird, once. Now, cattails immolated
in the frozen swamp are about all I have time for.
The days are so polarized. Yet time itself is off center.
At least that's how it feels to me.

I know it as well as the streets in the map of my imagined
industrial city. But it has its own way of slipping past.
There was never any fullness that was going to be;
you waited in line for things, and the stained light was
impenitent. 'Spiky' was one adjective that came to mind,

yet for all its raised or lower levels I approach this canal.
Its time was right in winter. There was pipe smoke
in cafés, and outside the great ashen bird
streamed from lettered display windows, and waited
a little way off. Another chance. It never became a gesture.

Submitted: Sunday, August 31, 2008
Edited: Monday, May 16, 2011


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Comments about this poem (Syringa by John Ashbery )

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  • Enlgmatics . (8/31/2008 3:50:00 PM)

    A perfect lyric. Ashbery has proven to me that poetry does not need to make sense to be beautiful. By denying our reality he allows the possibility of all other realities to exist. Relinquishing total control over our understanding can be difficult, but it is accomplished while we are falling asleep, half in and out of consciousness, while listening to television. So Ashbery's poetic vocabulary seems to pick up cultural detritus, political jumbo, sports talk.

    In Poem at the New Year, the narrator assumes a surprised and melancholy tone, whose attempted rhetoric is blown to dust before the elements that he doesn't understand: the wind which '[falls] of its own accord', the photograph of rush-hour traffic, paying us no heed. The line 'but other principles prevail in this glum haven, don't they? ' sounds bitter, wry, even, but when followed up with 'If that's what it is, ' strikes the reader as more confused than ironic, more unsure of itself than it wants to let on.

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