Thursday, February 27, 2020

They Tossed Him, the Portrait, from the Tallest of the Buildings

Yes, another, it's how I'm seething for now


John Ashbery

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.
So there was never any paint on his canvas
Until the people who lived in the buildings
Put him to work: “Try using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter’s moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer.”
How could he explain to them his prayer
That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.
Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush
In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait
Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.”
The news spread like wildfire through the buildings:
He had gone back to the sea for his subject.
Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”
Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush.
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.
They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.


  1. YLT's ATNTII-O was my 9/11 soundtrack, esp. Night Falls on Hoboken.

  2. speaking of the soul, as ashbery's poem does, when i wrote the following letter to the editor of the financial times on friday, feb. 21, i titled it Destroying the Democratic Party, or saving its soul?; it was printed today, february 27, under their title Sanders is attempting to take his party back:

    Historian Howard Zinn identified the two major untruths Americans learn about their country as: (1)the United States always acts altruistically overseas; and (2) there is no class struggle. With regard to the latter, I can understand why Mr. Buttegieg might call Senator Bernie Sanders' attempt to mobilize the Democratic Party to reclaim its historic position as the party of the working person as an attempt to "destroy" it.

    What dismays me is that Edward Luce calls the Sanders effort a "hostile takeover" of the party ("Showdown unlikely to have happy ending for Democrats", Global Insight, February 21). The hostile takeover of the party happened decades ago. This is an attempt to take it back.

    in addition to sending this to the letters editor, I also wrote directly to edward luce, us national editor of the financial times, who replied: "Yes, you make a good case. It does, however, come across as hostile to those who disagree with him."