Self-portrait in a convex mirror


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'Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror'was the first of John Ashbery's books to be published in Britain by Carcanet, and this is its third printing. Since it originally appeared here in 1977, three further collections have followed: 'As We Know', 'Shadow Train' and 'A Wave'. 'Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror'was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award. The long title poem, a meditation on Parmigianino's famous self-portrait, has become Ashbery's best-known poem. It is ...

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Apr 9, 2019

Asbery's Self-Portrait

The American poet John Ashbery's (1927 -- 2017) book "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" received extraordinary accolades upon its publication in 1975. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Critics Circle Award. The book, especially the lengthy concluding poem for which it is named, solidified Ashbery's reputation as a major American poet and remains his most widely-read work. The book consists of 35 poems, including the title poem. I am in the midst of reading the Library of America's collection of Ashbery's poems from 1956-1987 and wanted to pause to try to take stock through this important collection.

Ashbery's poetry and this volume resist paraphrase. Each poem includes lines and figures which are individually striking and often beautiful; but the poems cannot be read discursively. The diction shifts markedly in the poems from the solemn to the profane. There are sudden shifts in person and in tenses. Frequently, lines or sections are clear enough, but a poem as a whole will appear opaque. There is a sense in Ashbery's work of cutting through the tendency to rationalize and to focus on the joy of experience in its diversity. The concreteness and detail of the poem show a love of things in their variety and keen emotional responses. The poems frequently have the sense of an interior monologue or a discussion among friends. For all their difficulty, the poems have a certain lightness of touch. The poetry is urbane and shows great knowledge of art, music, literature, movies, and popular culture. And with reading, some sense of what Ashbery is about becomes clear.

"Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" was a watershed book for Ashbery because it is somewhat more accessible than his earlier avant-garde books. Yet the difficulties remain. The title poem, Ashbery's masterpiece, is, on one level accessible to read. It moves in a narrative reflection, and can be followed, up to a point. This is still a difficult poem which will bear close and repeated readings.

The title poem is based on a painting of 1524 of the same name by Parmigianino that now is in the Kunsthistoriche Museum, Vienna. The painting shows a reflection of the artist on a convex mirror. It is marked by a seemingly distorted and large right hand, and the somewhat feminine yet intense face of the artist staring at the viewer. In his poem, Ashbery addresses the artist, discusses and questions him about his painting, and quotes commentators on the painting contemporary and modern. He describes the work and his reaction to it, e.g.

"That is the tune but there are no words
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music."

The suggestion is that words are inadequate to capture reality, which must be conceived imaginatively. As the poem progresses, it discusses tradition and interpretation and perspectivism in understanding reality. The artist's vision is brought forward as Ashbery meditates on modern life and its cacophony. The poem becomes its own reflection of Ashbery's understanding of the creative endeavor.

The short poems in this volume are overshadowed by the Self-Portrait. These poems tend to be even more elliptical than this major poem of the volume. In my reading, I tried to identify the works that I could respond to while passing over, for the present, others that seemed to me obscure. This might be a good way for other readers to approach the book.

The poems I enjoyed include the first poem, "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat, the title of which is based on a poem called "Tom May's Death" by Andrew Marvell. (1621 --1678). Ashbery begins with the words "I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free" which in the context of the poem seems to speak of the renewal of the creative endeavor. The "Poem in Three Parts" begins with a startling phrase ("Once I let a guy blow me") but proceeds to an exploration of how one responds to experience: "Who goes to bed with what/ is unimportant. Feelings are important./ Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life/ Like the wind, like tumbling clouds/ In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.""

There is a charm and a picture of adolescent sexuality in "Mixed Feelings". The poem "The One Thing that can Save America" with its sense of nostalgia as Ashbery describes the "timeless" truths of warding off danger "Now and in the future, in cool yards,/In quiet small houses in the country,/Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets." The poems "Tenth Symphony", "Fear of Death" and "City Afternoon" are among others that I enjoyed.

This book is difficult, modern poetry that may not appeal to all readers. The poems in this book are evocative and I think a sense of them can be got from sympathetic reading. This book deserves its reputation as a major work of American literature.

Robin Friedman

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