Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Written in a style often described as verbal expressionism, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is the title poem in the collection for which John Ashbery won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award, all in 1976. Originally published in 1975 in the collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems, the lengthy title poem was inspired by a painting by the same name, completed in 1524, by the Renaissance painter Francesco Mazzola (1503-1540), who is most commonly known as Parmigianino. The poem is viewed as Ashbery's most accessible in terms of language and style and therefore distinguishes itself from many of Ashbery's other poems, the style of which has often been regarded as unconventional in the extreme. Indeed, many of his other poems have been described as being difficult or impossible to decipher. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is counted among the masterpieces of late-twentieth-century American poetry, and it is certainly regarded as Ashbery's personal masterpiece. The work is ostensibly a meditation on Parmigianino's painting, offering lengthy observations on Parmigianino's artistic technique and skill. It also delves into themes such as the nature of art, poetry, and artistic expression, and explores such philosophical issues as the nature of personal identity and the soul. The poem is available in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems, published by Penguin Books in 1990.
Born in Rochester, New York, on July 28, 1927, to a fruit farmer and his wife, John Ashbery spent his youth in Sodus, New York, a small town near Lake Ontario. When Ashbery was thirteen, his nine-year-old brother died of leukemia, an event that scarred his childhood with tragedy and loss. Ashbery attended Deerfield Academy and in 1945 enrolled at Harvard, developing friendships with the poets Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. After earning his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1949, Ashbery began his graduate studies at Columbia and New York University, where he focused on French literature. His circle of friends at this time included artists and painters, one of which was Jane Freilicher, who illustrated Ashbery's first publication, the limited edition Turandot and Other Poems (1953). In 1955, Ashbery was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in France; he became an art critic and correspondent in Paris. While in France, Ashbery wrote two poetry collections (The Tennis Court Oath, published in 1962, and Rivers and Mountains, published in 1966), both of which were regarded as highly controversial. This was due in part to the experimental form and style of the poems.
Returning to New York in 1965, Ashbery worked as executive editor of Art News, holding the position through 1972. Soon after his return to New York, he published the volume The Double Dream of Spring in 1970. This was followed by Three Poems in 1972. By the mid 1970s, Ashbery was receiving a greater amount of critical recognition for his poetic work and was regarded as one of America's most prominent poets, despite the controversy surrounding his work. He additionally worked as an art critic for both New York Magazine and Newsweek. In 1975, Ashbery's “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” was published as the title poem in his collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems. The volume was praised for being more accessible than some of Ashbery's earlier work. The acclaimed volume received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.
From 1974 through 1990, Ashbery served as Professor of English and a Codirector of the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College, and as a Distinguished Professor from 1980 through 1990. During this time, Ashbery continued to write poetry. His works Houseboat Days (1977) and As We Know (1979) were increasingly described as both difficult to decipher and avant-garde (avant-garde is a term applied to artwork that is viewed as obscure, intellectual, and experimental). Since then, he has worked as the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College (in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York). His more recent work includes And the Stars Were Shining (1994), Chinese Whispers (2002), Where Shall I Wander (2005), and A Worldly Country (2007). Ashbery's body of work includes poetry, a novel, plays, and essays, and he has received numerous awards and prizes for his achievements, in addition to those bestowed upon Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” opens immediately with an explanation of Ashbery's subject. In the first strophe (a distinct division within a poem that is similar to a stanza), Ashbery describes the method by which the Renaissance painter Parmigianino created the painting known as Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. With short, vivid phrases, Ashbery outlines the way Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) discusses the creation of Parmigianino's convex mirror itself from a sphere of wood. Ashbery catalogs details of the portrait, the way the quality of the light ensures that Parmigianino's face looks life-like, the way the curve of the mirror and its reflection is captured by the artist. Embedded in these technical details are Ashbery's observations on the soul he perceives animated in the eyes Parmigianino has painted. “The soul,” Ashbery says, “establishes itself;” yet it “is a captive,” longing for freedom, but trapped within the human form; and the human form is trapped within the sphere of our world, “life englobed.” Ashbery's extended ruminations on the position of the soul within the body and within the world give way to a return to the technical discussion of the artistry of the portrait. Commenting on the distorting effect of the convex mirror in Parmigianino's painting, Ashbery studies the size of the artist's hand. These observations yield quickly to a meditation on the nature of our perspective of reality: “The whole is stable within / Instability,” Ashbery states.
In the second section of the poem, Ashbery begins a more serious digression from the subject of Parmigianino's painting. His concentration is broken: “The balloon pops.” His thoughts wandering, the narrator thinks of his friends, conversations he has had with them, and the ways in which parts of others—their thoughts, their ideas—are absorbed by the self. We are “filtered and influenced” by others in the same way that light is changed by “windblown fog and sand.” The self, like art, like nature, is all collaboration. Ashbery meditates on the shifting nature of the world around us, likening Parmigianino's portrait to a person at the center of a sphere. The narrator then describes the vision that passes before one's eyes to reality spinning about a central core like a “carousel starting slowly / And going faster and faster.” In trying to capture an instant of this spinning, Parmigianino has been only marginally successful, the narrator notes, observing that it is impossible to record a perfect moment, to “rule out the extraneous / Forever” or to “perpetuate the enchantment of self within self.”
Ashbery, in the third section of the poem, continues to consider what it means to contemplate a painting such as Parmigianino's, particularly when one understands how much more challenging it is to actually capture and express experience. Being able to put today into perspective is nearly impossible. The present, the narrator observes, is pregnant with promise and potential: “Even stronger possibilities can remain / Whole without being tested.” The pattern of opposition Ashbery explored in the first section is repeated again, as he discusses the flow of potential contained within a room. Such a place, he notes “should be the vacuum of a dream” but instead is continually replenished “as the source of dreams.” Once exposed to reality, a dream is forced to try and thrive in a place that “has now become a slum.” At this point, the narrator refers once again to Parmigianino's painting, or at least Renaissance art scholar Sydney Freedberg's discussion of it. Ashbery relates Freedberg's analysis of the portrait's use of realism to project disharmony rather than truth. The argument feeds the narrator's discussion of the distortion of dreams and reality. This section of the poem is concluded with the idea that while the nature of dreams shift as they are “absorbed” into our reality, in this process “something like living occurs.”
In the fourth section Ashbery employs Freedberg again to comment on Renaissance art, and the place of Parmigianino's painting within the art of that time period. Ashbery discusses the care with which Parmigianino captured the effects of the mirror's rounded surface upon the artist's reflection. The narrator observes how, in studying the portrait, it is almost easy to forget that the reflection the painting captures is not your own. The effect is one of displacement once the realization that it is not your own reflection is made. Such a startling response is likened by Ashbery to the bizarre experiences of one of (nineteenth-century fantasy and science fiction writer) E. T. A. Hoffmann's characters, or by looking out of a window and being startled by a sudden snowfall.
Ashbery in the fifth section of the poem begins by briefly relating biographical facts about Parmigianino, how soldiers “burst in on him” during the sacking of Rome (in 1527, by troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), and spared his life. From Rome, Ashbery moves to Vienna, “where the painting is today” and on to New York, which he views as “a logarithm / Of other cities.” Ashbery recounts the history of the creation of the portrait, as well as his own creation of the poem in New York. Ashbery's short cataloging of the details of city life is a reminder of the way he interacts with the portrait, is drawn to it, and is then drawn back again to his own reality, his own creation, forcing the reader into the same flux of attention. This section of the poem transitions the reader away from the artwork of Parmigianino again; the narrator states “Your argument, Francesco, / Had begun to grow stale as no answer / Or answers were forthcoming.” Yet Ashbery leaves open the possibility of a continued relationship or exchange with the painting, suggesting that perhaps “another life is stocked there / In recesses no one knew of; that it / Not we, are the change; that we are in fact it / If we could get back to it.” This recalls Ashbery's earlier statements about dreams, and the shifting nature between dream and reality: trying to recall the impact a work of art has had on us is similar, Ashbery seems to be suggesting, to the struggle to recollect a fading dream.
In the final, lengthy movement of the poem, Ashbery turns decidedly to his own creation, having highlighted both the limitations and possibilities of the aesthetic (set of artistic principles) of another artist. Released from the fixed point to which it had been previously anchored, that is, from Parmigianino's portrait, the poem now embarks on a more loosely structured, philosophical exploration of the themes Ashbery has previously touched on, such as the soul's response to art, and the reality of the present moment. “No previous day would have been like this” (l. 382) he states. “I used to think they were all alike, / That the present always looked the same to everybody.” As he does earlier in the poem, Ashbery emphasizes a point by pursuing opposing ideas. The reality of one's interpretation of art, and the inspiration it offers is questioned, but accepted as having a place “the present we are always escaping from / And falling back into.” Conscious of his own position as an observer, as a person interacting with a piece of art, and that the reader of the poem is in the same position, Ashbery has stressed throughout the poem that a person in such a position is not exclusively in this position. That is, the art admirer and the reader of a poem have a place in a reality, in a life in a city, that is separate from, but a part of, their interaction with the art work. “And we must get out of it even as the public / Is pushing through the museum now so as to / Be out by closing time. You can't live there,” Ashbery states. He goes on to express the limitations he sees inherent in artistic expression, limitations centered around the impossibility of capturing the truth of a moment in the present. The effect of such an effort is always “the ‘it was all a dream’ / Syndrome, though the ‘all’ tells tersely / Enough how it wasn't. Its existence / Was real, though troubled,” Ashbery states.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a work in which the poet examines, through the course of the poem, his own act of creating poetry. This is known as self-reflexivity, and it features prominently as both theme and device in Ashbery's poem. The work is very much about its own self-reflexivity. Repeatedly, Ashbery calls attention to the creation not just of art, but of his creation of this work of art. Additionally, he discusses that this is being done in other works of art as well, particularly in Parmigianino's self-portrait. In the Parmigianino painting, the artist calls attention to the methods by which he accomplished his artistic achievement by having selected such a peculiar format—a painting of a reflection. Furthermore, the mirror is not a simple flat mirror, but a convex mirror. The choice appears to have been made for the sake of artifice alone. Ashbery also notes that Parmigianino's is “the first mirror portrait.” Ashbery's own self-reflexivity can be observed in the statements he makes throughout the poem. Repeatedly he refers to his own actions, nestled as they are within his descriptions of Parmigianino's portrait and his reaction to the work. His attention wandering, he notes “I think of the friends / Who came to see me, of what yesterday / Was like” and then uses this as a bridge back to the poem. His memories of yesterday intrude “on the dreaming model / In the silence of the studio as he considers / Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.” He draws attention back and forth, from the painting, to his own life, and back again to the artwork that inspired his meditation.
Coming back to his own perspective, Ashbery not only comments on his own response to Parmigianino's painting, but discusses his creation of a poem about it. He speaks of the exact present moment of writing, in “New York / Where I am now.” Ashbery emphasizes his continued desire to derive meaning and substance from art: “I go on consulting / This mirror that is no longer mine / For as much brisk vacancy as is to be / My portion this time.” Ashbery's self-reflexivity is demonstrated through his fascination with today, with his attempts to depict the truth and meaning of the present moment, and his willingness also to portray his process. “All we know / Is that we are a little early, that / Today has that special, lapidary / Todayness.” “I used to think they were all alike,” Ashbery goes on: “That the present always looked the same to everybody.” He speaks then of being drawn back, as if down a corridor, toward art, toward the painting, wondering what “figment of ‘art’” it is trying to express, then suggests “I think it is trying to say it is today.” The expression of, and experience of the present moment is conflated with artistic expression when Ashbery observes that “Today has no margins, the event arrives / Flush with its edges, is of the same substance, / Indistinguishable.” He also meditates on the failure of art to convey that which the artist intends, and in doing so calls into question his own ability to accomplish the same task. “Often” Ashbery says, “he finds / He has omitted the thing he started out to say / In the first place.” In pointing out our “otherness” as a viewer of art, he emphasizes the existence of the reader of his poem, of the reader's perception of his own art.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the historical event (referred to by Ashbery in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”) known as the Sacking of Rome, which occurred in 1527. What political circumstances preceded this event? What effect did this military occupation have on artists living in Rome at the time? What was the state of Rome following the attack? Write a report on your findings.
- Browse through an art history text, such as Frederick Hartt's Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and select a painting that you respond to strongly, whether positively or negatively. Compose a poem about the work. Include some physical details about the work itself as well as observations about your emotional response to it.
- Examine the works of Parmigianino (other than Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror) and other Mannerist painters, such as Correggio. Be sure to examine Mannerist sculptors, such as Cellini, as well. Observing their styles, their distortions of perspective or exaggeration of features, sketch or paint a self-portrait emulating the Mannerist style.
- In the sixth section of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery mentions Mahler's Ninth, and how it was said that a portion of this piece invoked the sentiment of awakening a moment too late. This is an allusion to the composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and his ninth symphony, the last symphony that he completed before his death. Listen to this symphony (available in the collection Mahler: The Complete Symphonies, 2001) and write a brief essay in which you explore why or how such music serves as a source of artistic and philosophical inspiration.
Isolation and Connection
Ashbery quotes Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari's claim that Parmigianino set out to copy all that he saw, which was, Ashbery notes, “Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait / Is the reflection once removed, / The glass chose to reflect only what he saw / which was enough for his purpose: his image.” What Ashbery notices about the painting is that the artist in fact depicted only the distorted largeness of his own person (“the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer”). The background, save for a glimpse of the window, is practically empty. The artist himself is the entire world, or globe of the poem, one that is organized “around the polestar of your eyes which are empty / Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.” The self that Ashbery describes portrayed in the painting has become symbolically isolated, by its own hand, from the rest of the world. The artist's own self-involvement has led to its isolation, Ashbery seems to be saying, whereas his own work of art, the poem, seeks to use art to identify connection, to the world, to reality, to a consciousness of the present moment. While Parmigianino's portrait is encapsulated and isolating, this very nature of the artwork prompts Ashbery's philosophical meditations on his own reaction to art, and his place within his own world, which, conveyed to the reader, is an invitation to do the same. Parmigianino's isolation inspires Ashbery's attempt to connect himself to today, to his life in New York, which he describes. Through his interaction with the artwork, and his understanding of the possibilities of the reader's reaction to his poem, Ashbery emphasizes both the isolating and connecting nature of art.
The term Mannerism refers to an artistic style beginning to be popular during the later years of the High Renaissance (a period of advanced artistic achievement) in Italy, during the early 1500s. Mannerist works of art were highly individualistic and featured distortions of perspective and qualities that were artificial or exaggerated rather than naturalistic. Parmigianino's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is itself an example of a Mannerist piece, and Ashbery's poem has similarly been described as Mannerist for its own distortions of perspective: the reader is in effect viewing Parmigianino's portrait from Ashbery's point of view, which is shaped by his own intentions. Like Mannerist paintings which drew attention to themselves as artificial creations through exaggeration, Ashbery draws attention to his own work of art by examining his own act of creating it. It should be noted as well that some scholars view Ashbery's technique as a critique of Parmigianino's Mannerist work. While both pieces are works of self-representation, Ashbery strives to analyze Parmigianino's as well as his own methods of self-portrayal, thereby distinguishing his approach from Parmigianino's by his attempt to eliminate not the self-reflexivity of the work, but the narcissistic and limiting qualities he finds in the painting.
Ashbery's style in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is sometimes referred to as expressionistic rather than Mannerist. Expressionism, or verbal expressionism, is the literary equivalent of the artistic abstract expressionism, in which the artist intentionally uses elements of distortion to create a desired emotional effect. The artists Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso were among the best known abstract expressionists. The purpose of verbal expressionism is the conveying of emotional truth, rather than the statement, in linear, traditional ways, of logical arguments or ideas. In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” Ashbery so accurately discusses Parmigianino's painting, he in effect offers a glimpse into the emotions expressed in the painting, presenting the verbal equivalent of viewing the painting itself (or the experience of viewing it), which transcends the mere description of the painting's details. In doing so, Ashbery delineates the possibilities of both verbal and visual modes of expression.
Pop Art in 1970s New York
When “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” was written in 1975, visual art in New York was under the influence of several movements, including that of Pop art; Ashbery was, in fact, friends with one of the best known Pop artists of the time, Andy Warhol (1930-1987). A visual artistic movement that began in Britain in the 1950s, Pop art is characterized by the influence of popular mass culture in terms of theme and the techniques the artists employed. A famous example is Warhol's repetition, in garish colors, of the silk-screened image of Marilyn Monroe, or his detailed paintings of Campbell's soup cans. The Pop art movement has been seen alternately as a rejection of, or an expansion of, the modes of abstract expressionism, which remained a prevalent style of New York artists in the 1970s. At once academic (in that it is often difficult to decipher techniques) and designed by way of its subject matter to appeal to a wide audience, Pop art asserted, in much the same way the abstract expressionism did, a faith in the idea of artistic possibility. In some ways, it was characterized by anti-aestheticism, or by the rejection of the notion of controlling artistic principles. Ashbery's poem exhibits similar tendencies, exploring both the shortcomings and the possibilities of art.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1520s: In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano (c. 1485-c. 1528) explores the Atlantic coastline of North America. His journey takes him to New York Harbor (where the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is, having been named for the explorer) and north to Maine. Inhabitants of the largely uncultivated area are Native Americans.
1970s: New York City is a cultural center that promotes the arts in a variety of forms, including theater, painting, photography, literature, and music. At this time, punk rock is emerging as a new and rebellious form of artistic expression. Zoo York, graffiti art in the subway tunnel underneath New York City's Central Park Zoo, is also developing. New York City is Ashbery's adopted hometown, and his descriptions of life in the city play an important part in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”
Today: New York City remains an international cultural and artistic capital. The city hosts the “People's Poetry Gathering” in which New Yorkers are encouraged to offer individual lines that form a larger poem. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, this effort at communal poetry was employed to create a traveling exhibition featuring poems of 110 lines each, one line for each story of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the attacks.
- 1520s: Mannerism, as an artistic movement, is in its early phases. Parmigianino's works, including Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) and Madonna with the Long Neck (1534-1540), along with the works of artists such as Rosso Fiorentino, including his Descent from the Cross (1521), exemplify this style. Mannerism is characterized by distortions in perspective, exaggerated physical features, disturbing compositions, and often unusual color choices. Given this definition, Ashbery's “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” could be considered a Mannerist poem.
1970s: Conceptual art is becoming popular, and it is concerned primarily with the idea, or concept expressed, rather than with conventional modes of style or notions of aesthetics. Ashbery's “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” could also be considered in this light, as it explores the ability of art to represent truth; it is, in many ways, about art itself.
Today: Notions about what constitutes art in the twenty-first century continue to shift. Nevertheless conceptual art remains fashionable: in 2005 Simon Starling exhibits his Shedboatshed a wooden shed that was turned into a boat, sailed down the Rhine River, and turned back into a shed.
- 1520s: English-language poetry at this time is dictated by the conventions of the pastoral and lyric forms. Pastoral poetry exalts an idealized, simple world of shepherds and shepherdesses, and it expresses the joys of country life and laments romantic troubles. Lyric poetry of this period features the praising of love and nature, or often of God and spirituality. These types of poems are characterized by structured forms and rhyme schemes.
1970s: Poetry is influenced by artistic movements such as Surrealism, a cultural movement typically associated with the visual arts but also related to philosophy and literature. Surrealist works incorporate elements of surprise and of unexpected juxtapositions. Ashbery is writing at a time when many poets, Surrealists and otherwise, seek to resist traditional poetic movements and forms, and “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is an example of a work that is unique in its form and structure.
Today: Though modern poetry still shows resistance to form and convention, there has also been a revival of poetry crafted with attention to meter, formal rhyme schemes, and traditional structures, an a movement described as New Formalism. Critics sometimes describe it as a “closed” form that opposes or threatens the open, free verse poetry popular in many critical and academic circles.
Italian High Renaissance Art
The subject of Ashbery's poem is the painting by Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The painting was completed in 1524, during the end of the High Renaissance period (a short period of about twenty-five years, beginning at the end of the fifteenth century, and continuing through the beginning of the sixteenth century) of art in Italy and the beginning of the Mannerist period. During the High Renaissance, the highest achievements in painting were characterized by spatial harmony, exquisite arrangements of subjects, and proportions that were naturalistic and graceful. Examples of this period include such famous works as Leonardo da Vinci's (1452-1519) Last Supper (completed in 1498), Michelangelo's (1475-1564) David (completed in 1504), and Raphael's (1483-1520) Transfiguration of Christ (completed in 1520). At the time, however, a new movement, that which became known as Mannerism, was becoming prominent. In Mannerist works, artists such as Parmigianino, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), and Georgio Vasari (1511-1574) distort perspective and depict figures with extremely exaggerated or unnatural features. Political and religious factors are cited as contributors to these dramatic shifts in the visual arts. Florence, the center of artistic creation in the region at the time, lost its political independence in 1512 and was now under the rule of the Medici family. Conditions of the population became miserable, and the city resented its loss of freedom. Concurrently, the Roman Catholic Church began to lose followers to Protestantism. When a member of the powerful Medici family became pope in 1523, political unrest and religious conflict fused. Armies that were supposedly loyal to the Roman Emperor Charles V but were actually not under control at all attacked Rome, under the auspices of addressing the pope's political maneuverings and manipulations. The distortions of Mannerism, then, are said to reflect the social, political, and religious chaos of the time. The disturbing effects of Mannerism stand in sharp contrast to the ordered, graceful, and beautiful imagery of the recent High Renaissance.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is perhaps Ashbery's most studied poem; many critics certainly refer to it as his most accessible. Reviewers often comment that the language in it is more straightforward than in his other poems, and that the subject of the poem remains consistent throughout. In 1979, poet, literary critic, and art historian David Shapiro explains in John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry: “From the beginning of the poem to the end the poet reenacts both a meditation upon the painting … and a meditation on the unfolding of his own vital poem.” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is often described as unique in its ability to verbally convey the visceral, visual impact of the painting, rather than simply describing the physical details of the image, or discussing the manner by which it was created.
In a Journal of Modern Literature essay published in 1976, shortly after the publication of Ashbery's poem, Fred Moramarco comments that Ashbery is able “to explore the verbal implications of painterly space, to capture the verbal nuances of Parmigianino's fixed and distorted image. The poem virtually resonates or extends the painting's meaning. It transforms visual impact to verbal precision.” Moramarco goes on to explore the way Ashbery attempts to “record verbally the emotional truth contained in Parmigianino's painting.” Later critics have reassessed the poem's achievements in this area. Travis Looper, in a 1992 essay in Papers on Language and Literature suggests that Ashbery's poem is a study of the failure of language, of the inability of verbal expression to accurately capture meaning. Looper asserts that Ashbery is aware “even as he writes the words of the poem, that the signs are themselves paltry substitutes of the object-realities he would describe.” Nevertheless, Looper goes on, the poet continues to use words as signifiers even though he is aware of their inadequacy, otherwise Ashbery would be “undermining the poem even as he writes it. Rather, in human fashion, he persists in that which is ultimately hopeless.”
Other critics agree that the poem is about representation. Richard Stamelman, in his 1984 essay for New Literary History, maintains that Ashbery emphasizes the differences between Parmigianino's act of self-portrayal and the way Ashbery represents himself in the poem. Commenting that Ashbery approaches art from a postmodern standpoint, Stamelman identifies Ashbery's position as one in which “painting and poetry can represent nothing other than their own difficult, often thwarted efforts at representation.” A more positive description of Ashbery's views on the possibilities and limitations of artistic representation is offered by David Herd in his 2000 book, John Ashbery and American Poetry. Herd observes that in “Self-Portrait in a Convex
Mirror,” “Ashbery's poetic, like Emerson's ‘American Scholar,’ but unlike Parmigianino's painting, leads the reader beyond the confines and conventions of artistic practice and into an encounter with their own experience.”
Dominic is an author and freelance editor. In this essay, Dominic explores the way the relationship between order and chaos, as portrayed in Ashbery's “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” functions as a parallel to the relationship between representation and experience.
The self-reflexive nature of Ashbery's “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (its tendency to refer to itself and its own act of having been created) is a much analyzed feature of the poem. Often the focus of such studies is on the way Ashbery discusses both the limitations and possibilities of artistic representation of any kind. Alternatively, many critics emphasize the ways in which Ashbery compares and contrasts Parmigianino's visual act of self-representation with the poet's own written act of self-representation. Yet the notion of representation functions in another way in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Ashbery uses the debate regarding the merits and limitations of Parmigianino's visual representation (and his own verbal act of representation) as a means of exploring, in a philosophical manner, the themes of order and chaos.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- “Song of Myself,” by Walt Whitman, is available in Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition (reprinted 2007). Like Ashbery,American poet Walt Whitman was known for his unconventional poetic structures, his cataloging of human experiences, an often rambling style, and his explorations of the soul and the relationship between the body and the soul.
- “The Over-Soul” (1841), by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is available in Emerson's Essays (1981). The prominent scholar and critic Harold Bloom has observed that Ashbery's poetry is highly influenced by the philosophy of American Transcendentalism, which is explored and explained in Emerson's essay.
- A Worldly Country: New Poems (2007), by John Ashbery, features Ashbery'smost recent poetic compositions. The poems are playful in tone but cover serious themes such as old age and death.
- Parmigianino (2006), by David Ekserdjian, contains previously unpublished drawings by Parmigianino as well as a new painting. Ekserdjian analyzes the significance of Parmigianino's works, and he also discusses the painter's artistic development while praising his artistic achievements.
- Tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann (1972) is a collection of short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Ashbery makes reference in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to the short-story characters created by the science fiction/fantasy writer Hoffmann (1776-1822).
In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” the terms “order” and “chaos” are loosened from their traditional connotations, with “order,” rather than “chaos” possessing the more pejorative implication. This inversion is revealed in the first section of the poem, when Ashbery, after describing Parmigianino's technical-methodology, reflects that the effect the artist has achieved has been to capture the soul: “the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept / In suspension, unable to advance much farther / Than your look as it intercepts the picture.” Through his painting, Parmigianino has attempted to impose order on something that is in reality uncontainable. For as Ashbery goes on to observe, what Parmigianino has accomplished is to capture something in the look on his face in the portrait that reminds the viewer of the idea of the soul. But “the secret is too plain … / … the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small, and it fits / Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.” Here and throughout the poem, the act of representing is shown to be an attempt to impose order. The objects of this intent in the poem include the soul, dreams, ideal forms, truth—all elements that by their very nature resist quantification, codification, or other methods of ordering; in this, resistance may be described as chaotic. Interestingly, Ashbery uses the term “chaos” when he refers to Parmigianino's attempt to organize the world depicted in painting around the center point of his eyes, which fail to reflect the artist's soul: “I see in this only the chaos / Of your round mirror which organizes everything / Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty.” The paradox of chaos that organizes is repeated in other expressions as well, such as “pure / Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything,” and “the whole is stable within / Instability.” Such paradoxes emphasizes the very chaotic nature of the unrepresentable ideas Ashbery explores within the poem.
Reflecting on the way one's attention wanders when viewing a work of art, Ashbery catalogs various recent experiences: “I think of the friends / Who came to see me, of what yesterday / Was like.” He recalls the way the thoughts of others become a part of us through their words, stressing here the significance of the experiences of everyday living. Turning his attention back to the painting, he questions the artist's ability to capture such things as time, and ideas. Ashbery asks: “Whose curved hand controls, / Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts / That peel off and fly away.” Through his painting, through the reflection in the mirror, Parmigianino has attempted to order, to organize. Ashbery however describes the world of living, rather than the represented world, in visceral terms “I feel the carousel starting slowly / And going faster and faster,” and here the implication is that the world of experience, the chaos of the spinning carousel, and the multitude of images and facts of daily living that “boil down to one / Uniform substance” are preferred over the limiting representations of art.
Ashbery subsequently links this chaotic, vital “magma” to the world of dreams, suggesting that dreams remind us of the elusive truths we frequently forget. In this, dreams are like visual acts of representation, like Parmigianino's painting, and verbal acts of representation, like Ashbery's poem, reminding us that artistic forms “retain a strong measure of ideal beauty / As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.” Such artistic representations, Ashbery is saying, because they are “fed by our dreams,” retain some elements of the chaos from which they emerged. Dreams filter a truth that is just beyond our reach, and artists and poets further distill these ideas into artistic representations. And yet, so far removed from the source, the capturing of such ideas with any accuracy is impossible. We forget things “which were ours once.” That we retain the notion at least that such connections exist, that we know at least that we have indeed forgotten something, justifies the human need to impose order on chaos, to attempt to represent artistically the true ideas that experience and living often seem to be more attuned to. Artistic representation, Ashbery concedes “is a metaphor / Made to include us, we are a part of it and / Can live in it as in fact we have done.” Our need to question “will not take place at random / But in an orderly way that means to menace / Nobody—the normal way things are done, / Like the concentric growing up of days / Around a life: correctly, if you think about it.”
In the end, Ashbery's stance, which seemed contentious at the onset of the poem, positing chaos against order, now appears to be ambiguous. The desire to order, to codify and quantify, is very human and understandable, since what we reach for in the chaos is a sense of the true order and nature of things, a sense of unity. And yet, in this striving, the true forms are always distorted by the very nature of their being represented. “It seems like a very hostile universe,” Ashbery states, the one in which such a distorted relationship must exist. Throughout the poem, Ashbery has emphasized the importance of today, talking about his current thoughts about his friends, and the conversations they shared, the details of everyday life, such as the “desk, papers, books, / Photographs of friends, the window and the trees.” Near the end of the poem, he returns to this idea, that the present moment and our experiences are of the utmost significance. “This thing, the mute undivided present, / Has the justification of logic, which / In this instance isn't a bad thing / Or wouldn't be, if the way of telling / Didn't somehow intrude, twisting the end result / Into a caricature of itself.” Artistic representation, or “the way of telling”, in whatever form it takes, inevitably distorts. But “the mute undivided present” is happening rather than being portrayed. It is closer to the chaos, or truth, or to the ideal form that we sometimes touch but ceaselessly forget, and that we consistently try to remember, in the same way we try to remember our dreams once we are awake. Ashbery compares this effort at remembering to “the game where / A whispered phrase passed around the room / Ends up as something completely different.” At the poem's end, Ashbery laments that “each part of the whole falls off / And cannot know it knew, except / Here and there, in cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time.” The act of representation is one of disfiguring, of distorting. Parmigianino distorted the proportions and perspective in his painting through the use of the convex mirror, metaphorically isolating the soul through his attempt to portray the true reflection of himself. Ashbery, in contrast, is forthright in his admission that a true reflection cannot in fact be conveyed, and that as humans, we are by our very nature cut off from ideal forms, from wholeness and unity, our souls imprisoned in our bodies, in our current existence, the way Parmigianino's is symbolically captured within the portrait.
Ashbery's explorations transcend a literary analysis of self-reflexivity and extend into philosophical territory. The notion of ideal forms is a Platonic one, as is the idea that our soul possesses knowledge, or truth, that we have forgotten. Our lives, Plato (c. 428 B.C.E.-c. 347 B.C.E.) explains in works such as the Meno are a process of recollecting that which we once knew. Similarly, the idea that our souls are part of a greater whole parallels Ralph Waldo Emerson's conception of an Over-Soul, which he describes in the essay “The Over-Soul” (first published in 1841 and now available in Emerson's Essays). Emerson (1803-1882), an American philosopher, poet, and essayist, explores not only the existence of our transcendent, or spiritual natures, but the possibilities of accessing the truth revealed in that nature through acts of quiet contemplation. He argues that while we may experience the world “piece by piece” it is all part of the same whole. Ashbery similarly portrays the apparently fragmented nature of human experience, but also depicts the possibilities of connection, the very yearning for wholeness suggesting that a “Uniform substance / a magma of interiors” does in fact exist.
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Stamelman defines “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” as a postmodern critique of art's ability to capture the complexities of self-expression. Stamelman further argues that the poem explores the contemporary world as a world that is slipping towards meaninglessness.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a title that has a double identity; it is a name shared by two different works of art: on the one hand, the small Mannerist self-representation (it is only 9 5/8 inches in diameter) painted on a convex piece of poplar wood by Francesco Parmigianino in Parma between 1523 and 1524; on the other, the postmodernist poem of 552 lines composed by John Ashbery in New York, probably between 1973 and 1974. The painted self-portrait is as self-enclosed, condensed, and smoothly englobed as the poetic meditation is open-ended, rambling, and fragmented. Where Parmigianino's face floats angelically in a state of perfect, timeless immobility, Ashbery's mind rushes to and fro in a dance of associations, thoughts, and self-conscious reflections. His consciousness moves in a recurring, although decentered, pattern from a meditation of the Parmigianino painting to a contemplation of his own life, to a consideration of the nature of poetic and pictorial representation, and back to the painting once again, where the meditation starts anew. While the painter presents an image of himself at once complete and unchanging, the poet represents the comings and goings of sensations, desires, thoughts, and impressions—“a mimesis,” he says, “of how experience comes to me.”
Although both works share the same title, they are radically different forms of self-representation. By entitling his poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery appears to have wanted to reveal the extreme difference between Mannerist and postmodernist aesthetics and the great disparity between the idea of self and the attitude toward reality that those two aesthetics embody. He wanted, in other words, to make his poem serve as a critical reflection of the painting: an ekphrastic re-presentation of Parmigianino's self-portrait and at the same time a radical criticism of the illusions and deceptions inherent in forms of traditional representation that insist on the ideal, essential, and totalized nature of the copied images they portray. Whereas portraiture has consistently been regarded as a “meditation on likeness,” in Ashbery's hands it becomes a meditation on difference.
The critical difference in Ashbery's poem is literally the difference criticism makes by being inserted into his poetic discourse; poetic expression and critical analysis function together in “Self-Portrait.” Wherever he can, he inserts a difference, a sense of critical otherness, that illuminates the disparity between his act of self- portrayal and Parmigianino's, which the poem paradoxically mirrors. Ashbery's criticism of the painting enables him to reveal and thus “dispel / The quaint illusions that have been deluding us” (“Litany,” AWK, p. 35), not only in the representations of the world, which painting, poetry, and narrative give, but in the fictions one uses to order one's life and past.
Ashbery is a poet of demystifications, differences, and, as will become clear, deconstructions. In the very act of presenting the Parmigianino painting—describing its formal elements, its stylistic mannerisms, the history of its composition—he critically dismantles the portrait, pointing to the sealed, life-denying, motionless image of self it portrays; the poem offers a critical deconstruction of representation itself, or more precisely, of the aesthetic of perfection which gives representations an aura of eternal sameness, enshrining them in the paradise of art so that they constitute what Harold Bloom calls a “supermimesis.” The Parmigianino painting as it is taken into and described by Ashbery's poem—so that it is transformed into a text, an ekphrasis, an inscribed version of the work of art—dazzles the reader with its triple reflection; it has its source in the mirror image that Parmigianino copies onto a convex surface and which Ashbery four hundred and fifty years later contemplates and represents:
Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself
for that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by bar-
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set
With great art to copy all that he saw in the
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
Mirroring and meditation constitute the critical reflections which Ashbery's poem projects as it presents and deconstructs Parmigianino's self-portrait. Criticism, the poet suggests, is reflection: a specular interpretation that mirrors and meditates simultaneously. The critic reflects the work he studies—quotation, paraphrase, photographic reproduction are mirror images of a special type—by reflecting upon it; the specular thus leads to the speculative, as Ashbery suggests:
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of
… For Ashbery perception and reflection are a matter of seeing in a glass darkly, if at all. While Parmigianino's sixteenth-century Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror presents an image of artistic unity that expresses faith in the representability of world and self through art, Ashbery's critical re-vision of the painting reveals what is a stilled and detemporalized scene of reflection. In Ashbery's postmodernist (and self-reflexive) view, painting and poetry can represent nothing other than their own difficult, often thwarted efforts at representation. By means of this critical meditation Ashbery so completely demystifies the traditional notions of self and representation that by the end of the poem Parmigianino's convex painting is flattened and pushed back into the dead past; self-portraiture is stripped of authority and authenticity; and knowledge appears as no more than the random coalescence of fragments.
… “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” belongs to that group of ekphrastic poems that self-reflexively make a statement about the nature of poetry or art. Ashbery's poem initiates its mirroring of the Parmigianino painting in the following way:
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run
In a movement supporting the face, which
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
In these fragmentary perceptions, none of which make a complete sentence except for the last, Ashbery quickly sums up the painting's features. Quoting Vasari, he explains how Parmigianino had a wooden convex surface made equal in size to his convex mirror and “‘set himself / With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass’.” Ashbery will repeatedly question this idea of representing all that one sees, thus uncovering the illusions of totality and detemporalized wholeness which such representations contain. Paintings like the Parmigianino self-portrait hide the fact that they have come into existence through arbitrary selections made by the painter from among his perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Ashbery is aware of the important events and impressions that had to be left out in the process of creating the representation—“this leaving-out business,” he calls it in an early poem (“The Skaters,” RM, p. 39)—exclusions that point to the unreality and the solipsism of totalized representations.
The reductiveness of the Parmigianino self-portrait is not the only flaw Ashbery has discovered; there is also the painting's lifelessness, its static unreality. Repeatedly, Ashbery refers to the protected, embalmed, sequestered, imprisoned face of the painter, surrounded at the painting's base by the large, curved right hand, which is elongated and slightly distorted by the convex surface. This hand both welcomes and defends, seeming simultaneously to move out to greet the viewer and to retreat, “Roving back to the body of which it seems / So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face.” The painting represents an autonomous and complete life within its convex globe. But the price paid to bring forth this unified and coherent image is high: it entails the deadening of the painter's spirit and the sacrifice of his freedom. In representing himself, Parmigianino has had to exclude much about his life and world that must have defined him as a person. He has had to reduce his being to a miniature image which conforms to the limits of an artful and timeless prison. Parmigianino's is a cautious self-portrait, and in his striving for a perfect, idealized expression of himself, he distorts the meaning of human existence:
The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait
The representation freezes one moment in the painter's life and presents it (falsely, Ashbery implies) as representative of that life, its perfect and essential embodiment. Everything is purified, filtered, self-contained; this is a curtailment of human possibility that moves Ashbery to tears of sympathy:
The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment
It is the immobility of the Parmigianino painting, its changeless and unmoving reality, that Ashbery questions. He will have nothing to do with “monuments of unageing intellect.” The chaos of life can submit to no artistic control:
Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the
That peel off and fly away at breathless
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the
Of your round mirror which organizes
Around the polestar of your eyes which are
Knowing nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
Art, Ashbery suggests, is a convention in which artist and viewer agree to suspend disbelief and to pretend that the representation is a coherent, complete re-presentation or reorganization of reality. An art like Parmigianino's gives the illusion of plenitude, but beneath the surface—and surface is all there is—lies nothing:
And the vase is always full
Because there is only just so much room
And it accommodates everything. The
One sees is not to be taken as
Merely that, but as everything as it
May be imagined outside time—not as a
But as all, in the refined, assimilable state.
To Ashbery the painting's fullness is fundamentally empty: “I go on consulting / This mirror that is no longer mine / For as much brisk vacancy as is to be / My portion this time.” …
Source: Richard Stamelman, “Critical Reflections: Poetry and Art Criticism in Ashbery's ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,’” in New Literary History, Vol. 15, No. 3, Spring 1984, pp. 607-30.
John Koethe and John Ashbery
In the following excerpt, taken from an interview between Koethe and Ashbery, the poet comments on his ideas and feelings about the long poem form in general, and specifically about “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Ashbery also talks about teaching poetry in universities, and about the movement towards poetry that stresses sound rather than image.
… Koethe: More than most poets, you've written long poems periodically. In a way, you've revived the long poem. Are there any kinds of long poems that you would like to write in the future? You've written long prose and sequence poems, and you've written a continuous meditation, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Ashbery: I would like to do more but I haven't figured out what form they're going to take yet—in fact I prefer to do that after I've already begun. But I like the idea of writing something that takes a great deal of time because your mind changes while you are doing it and the reader isn't aware at what point you left off and put it aside for two months and then came back; there aren't any seams. The long poem seems to gain a kind of richness from being written by not different poets, but a poet who is different each time.
Koethe: Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which expanded your readership, appears philosophically more continuous than some of your poems, in the sense of carrying an argument through to the end. Do you want to do that again, or is that something you wanted to do just one time?
Ashbery: I guess it's something that I wanted to do just that one time and I think its continuity is actually very specious. It seems to have fooled a lot of people. I think if it were examined closely, it would be found to be just as “incoherent” as my more notorious long poems. It's not a poem that I particularly like—it seems too serious.
Koethe: Creative writing as a subject open to everyone is a recent development in American education. Since the mid-seventies, you've been teaching poetry. What is your experience of teaching poetry and what sorts of techniques do you find work? Do you think it's a good idea on the whole since it's not something that you ever learned when you were young? Do you think there is any danger that creative writing classes “professionalize” poetry in a way that discourages experimentation?
Ashbery: Teaching creative writing is a very good idea for me because I couldn't make a living otherwise. I don't really know how it works although it does seem to work. I've noticed that the work of certain poets gets better during the course of the year, but I don't know how that works. I actually did take a poetry writing course when I was an undergraduate, before such things really existed, and I was so pleased to be noticed once in a while by Theodore Spencer, the poet who was teaching the class. It did a lot for me though the assignments he gave weren't really very interesting or provocative. I think it's very valuable for me to act just the way I am and not pretend to be any smarter or nicer than I actually am and to really be quite silly every now and then. This destroys the artificial barrier between me and the students. They realize that not only am I not any smarter, I'm really not a better person than they are. But I think a lot of poets use creative writing classes for ego trips and invent all sorts of artificial disciplines and act professional. That's not something I do. My classes are really on a sort of low conversational level. Yet I think that the more demotic the discussion becomes, the better it is for all of us.
Koethe: One final area: the difference between written and spoken poetry, and the idea of poetry as something you read on the page as opposed to something you read aloud. Many people think it makes a great deal of difference how you conceive of poetry—as something to be heard or something to be read. Do you think it makes much difference, and do you tend to conceive of your own work as primarily something to be read on the page rather than heard?
Ashbery: I, myself, enjoy reading it rather than hearing it read. On the other hand, the input for my poetry seems to come from colloquial talk and the inaccurate ways we present our ideas to other people and yet succeed in doing so despite our sloppiness. On the other hand, I don't really like to hear it, I would rather see it. I can hear it better when I see it. I seldom go to poetry readings, and I don't like performance poetry. The word “performance” reminds me of a line in Hebdomeros by De Chirico. I forget exactly what it is that sets off the hero at that particular point. I think it is the idea of eating oysters, or strawberries and cream. The line is: “It made him flee like Orestes pursued by the Furies.” The word “performance” has a similar effect on me.
Source: John Koethe and John Ashbery, “An Interview with John Ashbery,” in SubStance, Vol. 11, No. 4, Issue 37-38, 1983, pp. 178-86.
In the following excerpt, Moramarco emphasizes the influence of abstract expressionist paintings on the poetic styles of Ashbery and his friend and contemporary Frank O'Hara. More specifically, Moramarco argues that in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” Ashbery attains a new level of intersection between the poetic and the painterly.
The title poem in John Ashbery's new collection, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, begins with a precise description of the remarkable painting by Parmigianino which inspired it. Looking at the poem and painting together, one is struck by Ashbery's unique ability to explore the verbal implications of painterly space, to capture the verbal nuances of Parmigianino's fixed and distorted image. The poem virtually resonates or extends the painting's meaning. It transforms visual impact to verbal precision. I am reminded of an antithetical statement by the Abstract Expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb, whose haunting canvases juxtaposing luminous spheres and explosive brush strokes have all sorts of suggestive connections with Ashbery's poetry. Gottlieb writes about his own painting:
I frequently hear the question “What do these images mean?” This is simply the wrong question. Visual images do not have to conform to either verbal thinking or optical facts. A better question would be “Do these images convey any emotional truth?”
It seems to me Ashbery's intention in “Self Portrait” is to record verbally the emotional truth contained in Parmigianino's painting. Visual images do not have to conform to verbal thinking, as Gottlieb points out, but they can generate a parallel verbal universe, and it is this sort of a universe that Ashbery's poetry has consistently evoked.
… Returning to the collection with which I began this discussion, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, we find the painterly sensibility evident throughout Ashbery's work linked to the meditative mode that emerged as early as Rivers and Mountains but flourished fully in Three Poems. The title poem opens with a comment on the distortive quality of art even in its lucidity. In the Parmigianino portrait it describes,
the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to
What it advertises.
What it advertises, of course, is the artist's vision of himself, a vision limited by the confines of the mirror which contains it and misshapen by the contours of that mirror. Ashbery quotes from Vasari concerning the circumstances under which the portrait was made—Parmigianino's determination to copy exactly everything he saw looking into a convex barber's mirror on a similarly shaped piece of wood. The portrait, as we look at it, “Is the reflection once removed,” and Ashbery's poem about the portrait removes us yet further from the actual physical reality of Francesco Parmigianino toward a metaphysical reality—a disembodied consciousness evoked by the presence of the portrait. Art captures life, but what is the nature of that life it captures, how much of his life can the artist give to his art and still remain alive? “… the soul establishes itself, / But how far can it swim out through the eyes / And still return safely to its nest?”
The soul of the artist was in his being as he painted the portrait. In another sense it is in the portrait itself; and in still another sense it is in our consciousness as we look at the portrait. Or put another way, it is in none of the above places, but rather exists apart from time and place in an uncharted region that is ultimately ineffable. The soul—human consciousness—will not stay contained. It is always
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait
To convert the feelings evoked by, or contained within, the portrait, or within the poet's own self, into poetry means finding words for the ineffable, a paradoxical and doomed endeavor, but one which the poet, as Ashbery views the role, is destined to undertake continually:
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
Self-portraiture, then, emerges fully as a major theme in Ashbery's latest book, but it was, as I think we have seen, his theme all along. It is, as Barbara Rose has noted, a “theme with a thousand faces,” including in the broadest sense, the non-mimetic, painterly face of abstract forms, shapes, and colors. It is a theme he shares with Frank O'Hara, who wrote about “what is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations” and with the abstract canvases of William Baziotes, whose paintings tell him what he is “like at the moment.” Looking at life through the mirror of words, the work of O'Hara and Ashbery leads us to shatter the esthetic boundaries between painterly and poetic art. They are our painterly poets, and we need to look at a great many paintings to read them well.
Source: Fred Moramarco, “John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara: The Painterly Poets,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, September 1976, pp. 436-62.
Ashbery, John, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in Selected Poems, Penguin, 1986, pp. 188-204.
Ashbery, John, and Mark Ford, John Ashbery in Conversation with Mark Ford, Between the Lines, 2003.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Over-Soul,” in Emerson's Essays, Harper Perennial, 1981, pp. 188-211
Hartt, Frederick, “Part Four: The Renaissance,” in Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Prentice-Hall, 1989, pp. 627-44.
Herd, David, “John Ashbery in Conversation: The Communicative Value of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in John Ashbery and American Poetry, Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 144-78.
Kalstone, David, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in Bloom's Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 91-114.
Leckie, Ross, “Art, Mimesis, and John Ashbery's ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 114-31.
Looper, Travis, “Ashbery's ‘Self-Portrait,’” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Fall 1992, pp. 451-56.
Moramarco, Fred, “John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara: The Painterly Poets,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, September 1976, pp. 436-62.
Plato, Meno, translated by. R. W. Sharples, Aris & Phillips, 1986.
Shapiro, David, “Prolegomenon: The Mirror Staged” in John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 177-78.
Stamelman, Richard, “Critical Reflections: Poetry and Art Criticism in Ashbery's ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,’” in New Literary History, Vol. 15, No. 3, Spring 1984, pp. 607-30.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Bloom's collection of essays explores Ashbery's poetic aims, as well as his thematic, stylistic, and structural approaches to poetry.
Criswell, David, The Rise and Fall of the Holy Roman Empire: From Charlemagne to Napolean, PublishAmerica, 2005.
This book details the power struggles between emperors and popes throughout the duration of the Holy Roman Empire, providing both a church history as well as a secular history of the time period. This study provides the historical context for understanding the political climate in Italy during the 1500s. The politics of this time greatly impacted the endeavors of artists, such as Parmigianino, whose work inspired Ashbery's poem.
Franklin, David, The Art of Parmigianino, Yale University Press, 2004.
Franklin discusses Parmigianino's inspirations as well as his artistic struggles, and explores the artist's desire to convey, through his art, complex ideas. The book additionally contains numerous photographs of the artist's works.
Friedlaender, W., Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting, Columbia University Press, 1990.
Friedlaender, one of the world's most prominent art historians, details the elements of the Mannerist movement, discussing it as a reaction against High Renaissance ideals. Friedlaender additionally studies the artistic reaction against Mannerism, that is, the Anti-Mannerist movement.
Heffernan, James A. W., The Poetics of Ekphrasis: From Homer to Ashbery, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Heffernan studies ekphrasis (the practice of describing works of visual art) as a struggle between two modes of representation and discusses Ashbery's work within this larger framework.
Kraut, Richard, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plato, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
This collection of essays examines Plato's views on such subjects as knowledge, reality, and poetry, and places Plato's writings within the context of the intellectual and social background of his time.