Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a poem about identity and time, especially about the elusiveness of the present. The differences between Parmigianino’s self-portrait in paint and Ashbery’s self-portrait in words cause the poet to question art’s distortions. Because works of art attempt to make time stand still, they inevitably distort the reality they seek to portray. Perhaps the simplest statement one can make about the poem is that it works out the differences between a painted self-portrait and a poetic one. If Parmigianino’s self-portrait is a “snapshot” of his face at a given moment, Ashbery’s self-portrait is a moving picture of his mind working in time. Parmigianino’s portrait circumscribes the painter’s identity more straightforwardly than the poem does. By describing, imitating, and challenging the painting, Ashbery’s poem questions the limitations and ambitions of art.

Both the painter and the poet try to capture the elusive present. To do so, both must ignore the details around them which multiply into infinity. Instead of trying to describe everything he sees, the painter focuses on something in particular—in this case, his own reflection. A painting such as Parmigianino’s has a central figure, the subject of the painting, but also at least a minimal background of incidental details. Instead of describing his own face, however, the poet describes the painting. Because it takes more time to read Ashbery’s self-portrait than it does to look at Parmigianino’s, the present in the poem seems more fluid than it does in the painting.

Even when...

(The entire section is 658 words.)