Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is Ashbery’s most popular and most critically honored poem, and it brings together some of the best and some of the most annoying elements in his work. From its beginning, it requires some basic knowledge of a specific painting that Ashbery (a well-known art critic) admires. Italian painter Parmigianino (1503-1540), whose real name was Francesco Mazzola, was one of the foremost mannerist painters. He produced a self-portrait, and in order to impress his Roman patrons with his technical prowess, he painted the likeness as it would appear in a convex mirror.
The poem begins with a charming, succinct description of the painting, rich with critical perception and including excerpts from comments that had been made about the work at the time of its presentation in the early sixteenth century. It is essential to remember that it is not a realistic portrait of the painter, as it is deliberately distorted as it would be in a convex reflection. This eccentric, tricky idea is consistent with the stylistic experimentations of mannerist painters, who often chose to present subjects in graceful distortion rather than attempt to record life with absolute accuracy.
The speaker in the poem is impressed in particular with the representation of the eyes, which are usually considered in art to give entrance to the soul. The eyes in this picture do not fully satisfy the speaker, however deftly they are painted, and it is this sense of failure to capture the soul which precipitates the main subject of the poem: How can one know reality, how does one record it in art or otherwise, given one’s limitations as a human being?
It becomes clear that however much he enjoys the painting, he senses its inadequacy as a representation of reality. The flatness of the canvas, however cleverly manipulated, militates against the kind of three-dimensional experience of life: “But your eyes proclaim/ That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there/ And nothing can exist except what’s there.” The problem of holding on to experience...
(The entire section is 854 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
For John Ashbery, there is no memory or experience that can be taken at face value. There always exists more than meets the proverbial eye. The title poem of the collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is considered one of the most remarkable long contemporary poems written in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is an extraordinary autobiographical construction, though not traditional autobiography. Ashbery has no intention of revealing salacious details of his personal life. He is more concerned with revealing what cannot be truly revealed.
The title of Ashbery’s collection, and the poem of the same name, is named for a Renaissance painting by Italian artist Parmigianino, whose Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) has been recognized as a brilliant work of art. Ashbery was inspired by this painting after seeing it in person for the first time in 1959. In this collection, Ashbery ponders the nature of self-portraits and what they expose about the subject. He understands that distortion is inevitable, especially for a portrait that is revealed through a convex mirror. He takes aim at what may merely be an illusion, a beautiful illusion, yet not the truth that poets are supposedly in need of discovering. Ashbery concludes that words may not be able to fully describe what the poet senses about the nature of a painting, or about the nature of him- or herself. In a larger sense, then, Ashbery is contemplating how art itself is to be perceived.
In 1976, Ashbery was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Ashbery first burst onto the poetry scene in the 1950’s. His 1956 collection Some Trees had been chosen by poet W. H. Auden as the winning manuscript for the Yale Series of Younger Poets program. Since that time, Ashbery has established himself as one of the leading American poets of his generation. He also is an art critic of note, immersing himself in the language of the genre. By doing so, Ashbery has produced poetry that is more dense with references to the art world. For the casual reader his poetry can seem almost impenetrable. For most of his early career he was read by a small but devoted number of admirers. Several critics found his poetry too self-absorbed for its own good. For the poet himself, he believed that language should by employed to participate in a stimulating game of chance.
Ashbery, whose poetry is a maze, an intricate puzzle to be solved, has taken pride in his creative unpredictability and his unorthodox approach to poetry. By the early 1970’s, he had published several provocative volumes, including The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Rivers and Mountains (1966), and Three Poems (1972). From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, he lived in Paris. During his Paris years, Ashbery absorbed everything French, including the language, the culture, the art, and the poetry. His poetry was dramatically altered by his years abroad. He was influenced by everything around him, including both “high” and “low” culture. Because of the breadth of his knowledge and the playfulness of his poetic approach, the poems incorporate a vast array of subjects. Because he is not tied to any one style, Ashbery demands much from himself and his readership. Taking inspiration...
(The entire section is 1380 words.)