Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8292
Ashbery, John 1927–
Ashbery is an American poet, dramatist, novelist, editor, and critic. He has sustained an active interest in art and art criticism throughout his career and acknowledges the influence of abstract painting on his verse. Ashbery's poetry has often been criticized for what seems to be an intentional...
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Ashbery, John 1927–
Ashbery is an American poet, dramatist, novelist, editor, and critic. He has sustained an active interest in art and art criticism throughout his career and acknowledges the influence of abstract painting on his verse. Ashbery's poetry has often been criticized for what seems to be an intentional obscurity. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8. rev. ed.)
Ashbery is a genuinely Whitmanian poet, not of the barbaric yawp variety (which Whitman himself was not, anyway) but in recapturing the subtle ambiance of Whitman's best years (1855–1860), with their delicacy and limpidity of style, enormous range of materia poetica and alternately affectionately relaxed and gently anguished portrayal of the self. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror returns Ashbery to his best mode, as exemplified by his most beautiful previous book, The Double Dream of Spring. From Stevens, Ashbery appears to have taken his working principle that poetry and materia poetica are the same thing, which is a fatal recipe for others, but triumphant in Whitman as in these two descendants, different as they are from one another and from the greatest of all our poets…. Ashbery's genius is for a metaphysical pathos that borders comedy but generally waits in a study of the nostalgias just beyond the comic. (p. 24)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.
[Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror] forces one to take poetry seriously again or at least reminds one, in an arid age, what a great and restorative thing poetry can be. One must agree with Harold Bloom that Ashbery is in the romantic tradition, but he is no doomed heir to a dying dynasty. His very evasiveness refreshes; his lucid opacity combines the fun of Frank O'Hara with the disciplined beauty of Wallace Stevens. He knows art and life must be cunning to survive. (p. 50)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).
The title poem in … 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…. 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,… but they can generate a parallel verbal universe, and it is this sort of a universe that Ashbery's poetry has consistently evoked.
More than any other poets since perhaps William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, Ashbery and his close friend Frank O'Hara have demonstrated in their poetry a continuing affinity with developments in contemporary painting. (pp. 436-37)
The painterly dimension of Ashbery's work is broader than that of O'Hara's and not limited strictly to Abstract Expressionism or Pop-Art, but incorporates a painterly sensibility drawn from various periods of art history. It manifests itself as early as Some Trees, in which the well-known poem "The Instruction Manual" demonstrates how a verbally imaginative world can evoke an almost tangible physical reality—how words can be used to evoke places, people, events, odors, and colors that seem to materialize before us. The narrator in the poem is bored by his job (having to turn out an instruction manual on the uses of a new metal), and as his mind wanders under the pressure of having to meet the deadline, he begins to daydream about Guadalajara: "City of the rose-colored flowers" he calls it. His vision of Guadalajara fills the remainder of the poem, and we become caught up in the rich, vitalized verbal canvas he has painted for us, transported from the mundane and often tedious realities of our daily lives to this exotic, marvelous world, brimming over with a vitality that is clearly absent in the world of instruction manuals. The point of the poem, I think, is that literature and art can provide these moments of revitalization for us, and although we must always return to the real world, our esthetic encounters impinge upon our sensibilities and leave us altered. At the conclusion of the poem, the narrator stresses the completeness of the imaginative experience, the absolute autonomy of the creative moment…. (p. 448)
Also in this collection there is a sestina entitled "The Painter" whose end-words—"buildings," "portrait," "prayer," "subject," "brush," and "canvas"—interact with one another to again emphasize the autonomy of art. The painter in the poem is a conduit through whom art passes. Frustrated by his inability to capture nature on his canvas with the materials of his art, he stares at his blank canvas long and long…. He gives up his notions of representational art and decides to paint an Expressionistic portrait of his wife,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.
The painter, encouraged by this new-found freedom, turns back to the sea for his subject, bringing to the task the fruits of his recent experience; trying to capture the sea on canvas this time, he simply "dipped his brush into the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer" and dabbed the ocean water directly on to the canvas. This is beyond Abstract Expressionism and almost anticipates the conceptual art of the late 60s, but the point made in the poem is that no one knows what to make of the new art object. Sea water on canvas is an esthetic outrage, and the townspeople and other artists will not put up with it, so the painter gives up painting…. The tercet which concludes the sestina describes what happens to people who confuse art and life, as, of course, the Abstract Expressionists purposely did, for both painter and his painting are drowned in the ultimate spiritual silence of his subject. His painting is not a portrait of the sea, but rather a self-portrait, as, I believe Ashbery and the Abstract Expressionists would agree, all major art is:
They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings:
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As if his subject had decided to remain a prayer.
But silence is not art, though finding ways to convey the silence may indeed be.
Ashbery's second collection, The Tennis Court Oath, is still a book that arouses passions in critics and readers. Shortly after its appearance Norman Friedman railed against its purposeful obscurity, and more recently Harold Bloom has seen it as an anomaly in what he regards as the otherwise steady progression of Ashbery's literary sensibility [see CLC, Vol. 4]. For me it becomes approachable, explicable, and even down-right lucid when read with some of the esthetic assumptions of Abstract Expressionism in mind. (pp. 449-50)
The first assumption to keep in mind is the necessity to view each poem in the work as a totally self-contained world, not mimetic in nature, but autonomous and self-expressive like a Pollock canvas. Secondly, the techniques of juxtaposition developed by the Abstract painters, particularly Rothko and Gottlieb, can be related to the verbal juxtaposition we find in The Tennis Court Oath, where words clash and interact with one another to invigorate our sense of the creative possibilities of language. Third, it is important to recall the unconscious dimension of Abstract Expressionism—the freedom it allows the artist for self-expression of the deepest sort. With these few presuppositions in mind, the world of The Tennis Court Oath yields its potential rather easily to any careful reader. (pp. 450-51)
[A] poem entitled "The Tennis Court Oath" creates certain expectations in the reader. We are prepared to read something about the French Revolution, perhaps some connection between that historical period and our own, yet historical allusions are nowhere to be found in the poem. [Ashbery] loves to give poems weighty and portentous titles like "Civilization and Its Discontents" and "Europe" and then proceed to construct a poem which frustrates the aroused expectations. A painterly analogy here is to the massive color and line canvases of Barnett Newman, where totally formal and abstract patterns are given titles like "Dionysius" and "Achilles." The reader or the viewer is invited to make his or her own connections, to participate in constructing the work's "meaning." (p. 451)
What we confront [in "The Tennis Court Oath"], it seems to me, is constantly shifting verbal perceptions—verbal "events" as a record of their own occurrence. Pollock's drips, Rothko's haunting, color-drenched, luminous, rectangular shapes, and Gottlieb's spheres and explosive strokes are here, in a sense, paralleled by an imagistic scattering and an emotional and intellectual verbal juxtaposition.
The notorious poem, "Leaving the Atocha Station," provides an … example of Ashbery's method in action. This is a poem about which Harold Bloom has recorded his "outrage and disbelief," as indeed anyone would who approaches it in exclusively literary terms…. The Tennis Court Oath poems … are poems more influenced by paintings than by other poems, and to understand them or respond to them fully requires pursuing that influence, not dismissing it [as Bloom does].
In "Leaving the Atocha Station," the title seems more closely related to the poem than is usually the case in this volume. The second line expresses directly what it is we are reading: "And pulling us out of there experiencing it." Since Paul Carroll [in The Poem in Its Skin] has assured us that the Atocha station is a small railroad station in Portugal, the subject of this poem seems clearly to be the experience of pulling out of that station. But before we can be sure about what the subject of the poem is, we need to confront the puzzlement of the initial line: "The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness." Carroll has done a careful job of exegesis here, so my comments need only be minimal and restricted to pointing out that the line forces us to consider the reverberations of each word against the next, as the carefully drawn and strategically placed squares in a Hans Hoffman painting intersect one another and force us to see the abstract pattern in the background from a different perspective. "Arctic honey," Ashbery told my class in Contemporary Poetry, "is probably something cold and sweet." "Blue Poles," in the Pollock painting of that name, are probably something dark and mysterious. The darkness caused by the blabbing, the "pulling us out of there experiencing it," all suggest the sound and motion of the immediate experience of leaving a train station.
From this point on, the images the poem conveys are generated by subconscious free association, limited by the confines of the experience being described. It is not too much to say that the poem attempts to capture the totality of that experience by including what is going on (both consciously and subconsciously) in the narrator's mind, what is going on around him in the immediate vicinity of the railroad car (lots of small, fragmented talk, snatches of it entering and receding from the narrator's consciousness), and what is occurring in the larger, external environment (the landscape that is flashing by).
Seen from this perspective, the poem emerges as an experiential canvas recording an individual's perceptions at a selected moment of his life. Phrases such as "The worn stool blazing pigeons from the roof" are a continuum of ordinary perceptions which enter and disappear from the narrator's consciousness but are recorded permanently in the landscape of the poem. They are like Rothko's yellow and oranges: glowing and fixed moments.
Rivers and Mountains (1966), Ashbery's next volume after The Tennis Court Oath, seems a much more conventional book of verse, less preoccupied with fragmented syntax, generally less self-conscious about its own techniques. In many ways it seems closer in its esthetic concerns to Some Trees than to the more innovative collection, but even here some painterly analogies can be productively drawn. (pp. 452-53)
"The Skaters" is a poem absorbed by the question of what should go into art. How many of our fleeting moments are worthy of recording, and what about them makes them different from other moments? "Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard" is a line which records a visual and aural perception, but why would an artist choose these perceptions (from an almost infinite variety of others) to perpetuate in the work of art?
The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o'er the ice
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything except perhaps the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden "dump" or lament.
But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.
Capturing the fleeting present and charging it with sudden illumination is, after all, the mission of art; it answers the question posed by Ashbery in the next stanza, "But how much survives? How much of any one of us survives?"
The act of skating thus becomes a metaphor for the artist's graceful glide over the flat surface of existence, leaving his or her mark. Ashbery calls our attention to the lines of the poem, an analogy perhaps to the lines the skaters make in the ice, neither "meaningful" in the sense of having further explanations, but each recording its own presence as well the absence of its creator…. The theme of art recording both the presence of the artist during the creative moment and his absence in our present experience of it is more fully developed in Three Poems but, as Richard Howard has pointed out [in Alone in America], "'The Skaters' … becomes a meditation on its own being in the world." This self-reflective quality is perhaps the most important continuity Ashbery's work shares with painterly developments. (pp. 455-56)
The reward of enabling us to see things as we have never seen them before is, of course, the most traditional of esthetic rewards, and it permeates Ashbery's work from Some Trees through Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In The Double Dream of Spring, perhaps the most conventional of Ashbery's volumes, we find this esthetic renewal celebrated and underscored. (p. 456)
[A] persistent pattern of imagery in The Double Dream of Spring [is] associated with days beginning and ending, a pattern which reflects the paramount philosophical consideration in Ashbery's work, the problem of time passing, of the artist's futile, but nonetheless determined, attempt to seize the moment.
The influence of de Chirico [apparent in the above work] persists in Three Poems, a long, meditative prose poem concerned with the traces that the past events of our lives make upon our present, and in turn the traces that each present moment makes upon our future…. The focus here, however, is metaphysics rather than painting, and it is de Chirico's literary work that hovers in the background rather than his paintings. Ashbery has acknowledged the impact that de Chirico's strange and neglected novel Hebdomeros has had on him, and it is this source, as well as de Chirico's scattered comments on art, that nourishes Three Poems. (p. 459)
There is a constant attempt in the poem to break out of the confines of human subjective experience, to internalize an objective consciousness. Such an attempt is, of course, doomed from the start, because the consciousness is expressed in a language selected by John Ashbery and as such becomes his subjective consciousness. Consequently, Three Poems does narrate something that does not appear within the outline—and that something is an idealized, fully contained world, charged with promise and vitality, but paradoxically devoid of individual human subjectivity.
Because Three Poems is one of the longest prose poems in English that I know about, it is concerned with many other things as well, but one reads it with the sense of hearing a voice far off, catching snatches of lucidity intermittently, but never quite grasping the whole of a particular sequence. This evasive completeness is purposeful—wholeness, after all, is always beyond our grasp. We perceive the poem through a glass darkly, or, perhaps more appropriately, as a faint, lingering melody, a remembered performance, vaguely recalled, but insubstantial as a waking dream. (p. 460)
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…. 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…. 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…. (pp. 461-62)
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. (p. 462)
Fred Moramarco, in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1976), September, 1976.
John Ashbery is our gadfly. His new poetry creates discomforts, snares, inconveniences for readers to sting them into a more responsible mode of readership….
I have lived with John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" as with a favorite mistress for the past nine months. Often, for whole days of inhabiting the room of its dream, I have felt that it is the only poem—and Ashbery the only author—in my life. It is what I most want from a poem. Or an author. (p. 3)
In previous work, Ashbery usually presented the modern city, or the present Age, as if it were some unfamiliar and forgotten ancient city, casting a hypnotic spell over us with flashes of familiarity, as in "These Lacustrine Cities." In Ashbery's vision, we were repeatedly surprised to discover that the society and urban landscape presented as a foreign locale was a shrewdly disguised version of our own. It would seem that we have better perspective in relation to the past, or to the future, than to the present: "Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted." My own face, my own city, my own country, my own Age—these are the most difficult and intractable landscapes. But a self-portraitist must, of necessity, illumine the enigmas of his own corpus, his America, his New York, his 1974.
Even so, Ashbery finds that he must be constantly nourished by interaction with images out of the past to renew his power to stay alive in the present. Self-Portrait is a laboratory in which past and present, yesterday and today, cross-fertilize each other. The alternating rhythm of withdrawal and arrival, the pendulum swing between past and present, is the mode of life that graphs the underlying blueprint of this poem's wave-like grand sweep, its ample span of experience. In the opening passages of Self-Portrait, the painter's hand, face and soul drift toward and away, toward and away "in a recurrent wave of arrival." This oscillating movement defines the poem's architecture…. (p. 5)
No other contemporary poet's return from exile has generated so shattering an impact on our whole scheme of values; no other has flooded our vague, ambiguous, and over-differentiated literary climate with so bold and disaffiliated a voice, or with so rich a blend of seminal new possibilities for the future health of our art. Ashbery's unexpected arrival in his power to fully embrace the present moment, which explodes in a number of key passages in the last pages of Self-Portrait, unleashes great affirmative energies. He had given himself up, unconditionally, to the world of the great past. Total severance from the present day appears to have purified him, released him from all bondage to the past, ultimately, and freed him to be whole and totally present in the world of today. (p. 6)
For fifteen years, John Ashbery had been haunted by Francesco Parmigianino's self-portrait … before he undertook to write his most ambitious poem…. It is the face of a man triumphing in his struggle to cope with all the complexities of the dream-life. It is the emblematic face of the lone solitary spirit, sequestered in its grapplings with itself, and more, the spirit returning intermittently from Byzantium to brave "the fury and the mire of human veins," riding the Yeatsian dolphin over "that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea." In this major poem, more than in all of his other work taken together, Ashbery rides that dolphin, engaged profoundly with both the life of dreams and the public life of today…. [Our] Age is more impoverished than most by neglect and outright scorn of the world of dreams; hence, the necessity for Ashbery to go foraging in a past Age for a heroic model to be held in the timeless mind's eye as reminder, emblem, and finally, as blood-linked totem. The totemic stage is the condition of apotheosis for the work of art. For Ashbery to infuse the language of poetry with totemic force is to raise the poem, once again, into a sphere of communal grace…. (pp. 6-7)
Ashbery finds that this exquisitely crafted mirror-portrait, which was nourished continually by our mutual dream-life during its lengthily prolonged composition, is, finally, indistinguishable from our own lost face of dreaming. (p. 7)
The extraordinary relationship that develops between Ashbery and Parmigianino in the course of this poem strikes me as being unprecedented in contemporary letters. The poem begins in a spirit of arbitrariness, happy accident, as if the Parmigianino self-portrait were simply one sample chosen at random from a large available repertoire of works in this genre, any one of which might have sufficed for Ashbery's purposes. But we grow to learn—along with the author—that the poem's choice of subject, and indeed, the poet's choice of heroic model and mentor, was somehow enigmatically fated, predetermined….
Ashbery begins his own self-portrait by describing Parmigianino's self-portrait. The portrayal of Francesco Parmigianion is one way to sidle up to his own identity by avoiding it, by examining the other man's identity, by controlled indirection. Since Parmigianino has successfully mirrored his own dream-life, the careful spectator—by responding empathetically to the painting—will penetrate the exterior face and find his way to the interior, in which one man's otherness is found to be magically interlocked with another's. (p. 8)
So began this strange kinship across the centuries between Ashbery and Parmigianino to act out an unfinished life history. Ashbery hints—toward the end of the poem—that the marvelous interaction between a man alive today and his mysterious brother-spirit "materialized" out of the distant past both partakes of and transcends the heightened intensity of sexual love. It is a cosmic romance, an unearthly love affair, which evolves through much the same cycle of stages as a sexual-erotic encounter…. (pp. 8-9)
Ashbery's career has vacillated between two poles, two opposite esthetics—the rage to leave everything out, the rage to put everything back in. Significantly, Ashbery mastered in early career the powerful restraint in leaving out, as carried to the unreadable—yet cryptically apprehensible—extreme of poems in The Tennis Court Oath, a book whose ambitious failure I now perceive to have been an indispensable detour that precipitated, finally, the elevated vision of Ashbery's recent work. Knowing how to leave things out, paradoxically, evolved into the disposition of the poem's art in which everything is mysteriously found to have been put back in—in some other form. (p. 13)
Since the beginning of Ashbery's career, he has been obsessed with devising poetic forms whose compositional mould would be broad enough to accommodate and contain all key dimensions of contemporary reality. Whereas, in Ashbery's earlier work, he espoused the metaphysics of radical immaterialism, treating all external bodies—including words—as being of the essence of mind; in the advanced work of his new poetry, he explores the full-fledged doctrine of radical corporealism. All of reality—including words—may be perceived and experienced as body-surface…. Though much of the poem's apparatus is comprised of ideas—"fertile thought associations"—they, too, are perceived to be fragments of body in a different form, "accidents scarring" the mind's surface. Ideas are simply additional items in the make-up of the poem's compositional furnishings. They are equivalent, as repositories of truth, to all other components of the poem's architecture: imagistic, anecdotal, descriptive, narrational. This poetry carries a burden of revelation that can appropriate into nuances of style data received from every material surface that catches the light…. (p. 14)
Ashbery is the first major contemporary poet to advance the autobiographical mode beyond John Berryman. The theory of the self-portrait advanced by Ashbery's poem has special relevance to both Berryman's Dream Songs and Lowell's Notebook. Berryman's single aspiration (avowedly emulated by Lowell), from Homage to Mistress Bradstreet to The Dream Songs, was to provide a map of the "whole dream-life" by producing an all-inclusive succession of sketches, miniature self-portraits. Neither Berryman nor Lowell seemed to entertain, even passingly, Ashbery's tenet that to embrace the whole of reality, you must know what to leave out, or, in the words of a contemporary much closer to Ashbery in spirit—as well as in age—A. R. Ammons, "how much revelation concealment necessitates." (p. 15)
For Ashbery, the true story of our lives is to be sought in disclosures of enigmas in the self. They must be gently coaxed to reveal themselves, obliquely. The enigmas in our being are at the core of our identity…. [The] self-portrait is an even truer likeness of the inner man than of the exterior man, the physiognomy of his corporeal face a fleshly mask for the interior mythic face lurking under the surface of skin and bones. (p. 16)
As the poem's drama unfolds, Ashbery learns to mediate with force and mastery between the two uniquely differentiated intelligences—that of painting, that of poetry—and he crossbreeds a hybrid esthetic, a novel coupling of plastic and verbal arts; moreover, he draws lavishly, if disguisedly, upon the art of cinematography in moulding this long poem's architecture.
Memory, then, is to be the poet's mirror. As Ashbery tries to make out the details of his identity reflected in the mirror, he finds he cannot look at himself directly. No man can look squarely into his own eyes. He must behold his image by glancing a little to one side of the present. The minimal remove of one-day-old memories will suffice: for Ashbery, this timeshunt constitutes the mirror's slight convexity. (pp. 17-18)
It is all but impossible to locate in the exact phrasing and rhythms the technical means whereby the tempo of the poem creates a hushed urgency of quiet, enveloping [the] first lines that advance, haltingly, into the life events of the poet. The power of Ashbery's restraint in holding back from speaking out directly of himself and his friends until he is assured of the necessary tone and accents of plain speech evokes for readers the miracle of awakening. We encounter the usual everyday events, no thing out of the ordinary, and find all possible strangeness and mystery therein. It is all the magical novelty of first-look-taking, first glancings about in the moments of slow awakening from a deep sleep: transparencies, lucidities, mysteries are every place he looks…. To Ashbery's newly acquired mode and organ of sight—the transplanted eye of the past—it appears to be a strange unfamiliar cosmos, an interior landscape of all enigmas. His amazement is signalled by the emergence of naivete, the asking of questions of the most radical innocence and artlessness…. (pp. 19-20)
The self … is filtered through memory wherein it is demonstrated to have undergone metamorphosis into a repository which receives and selects and assimilates—as by osmosis—the voices of other lives that touch our sensorium. Human memory, in itself, is revealed to be a marvelous organ covered with the mental equivalent of thousands of sense receptors working strenuously to programme all of the wonderful human impressions of each day into the self's memory bank ("a magma of interiors"). The seat of the poet's identity, allowing for its own total conversion into the world of received impressions, has attained the elevated spiritual plane in which mere private wishes and agonies have been purged, flushed out of the self to give place to the superior marvelous inrush of radiant other lives. They suddenly come to comprise the foreground of Ashbery's self-portrait, since they have been reconstituted by memory into integral fragments of his composite self…. (p. 20)
Only now, and never before this moment in his career, shall Ashberry have been ready to find voice to speak the portrait of himself. Following his many years of withdrawal and seclusion, a period of slow mellowing, this exactly appointed occasion has been granted to him. A reader feels he can bodily sense an immense weight lifting, as if Ashbery has been relieved, suddenly, of the burden of guilt and bewilderment of two decades of self-imposed ostracism that his choice of direction as artist (guided by inner necessity, but no less a willed and earned choice for that) had condemned him to, years of lonely waiting to connect with a viable audience, and to expedite human good fellowship with a widespread community of readers. (p. 21)
What emerges here is the revelation that the years of steadfastness, the unremitting fidelity to his isolationist personal ethic, provided the scaffolding for a compassionately humane artistry.
His self-enchantment, though it grew into a near-perfect solipsism, shocked even its author by exploding, finally, into a disguised mode of embracing the entire human community which he had consistently repulsed from the surface preoccupations of his art. His solipsism proved to be a mask worn by a deep and abiding compassionateness for others, which, in the concluding pages of this poem, grows into a Messianic passion to change the whole face of his culture, and indeed, to initiate a cultural revolution by a revolutionizing of his poetics. He advances the creed—recalling Ezra Pound at his early best—that potent changes in language arts will germinate matching changes in the whole fabric of our country's mass sensibility, from the ground of common speech up, and thereby revive the nation's capacity to embrace its mission and stand up to shoulder its full burden of the collective dream-life of unbroken civilization…. (p. 22)
John Ashbery's central aspiration and triumph in this poem is to have sired a new species of self-portraiture, whereby the poet's portrayal of self—rivalling, say, the magazine cover photos of the aging W. H. Auden—shall reveal, enigmatically, the social and cultural topography of the life outside him. (p. 23)
[We] note the remarkable succession of attunements by which Ashbery harmonizes and blends his art medium to predispose it for the drama that is to follow. He instills the language, as it slowly collects in the work's spacious mould, with a timbre of heightened alertness, a power of intensest listening held firm over a wide sweep of purely visceral writing…. A prolonged wave of musical resonances and overtones, of an aural magnitude that can be produced only by the most refined and exquisitely tuned poetic instruments, slowly accumulates. (pp. 23-4)
While others clearly have experienced these psychic transformations, no other writer of my acquaintance has ever been able to locate, anatomize, and profoundly articulate this process that occurs just near enough to our full waking consciousness to seem familiar, hovering at the subliminal thresholds of ordinary pedestrain awareness, but too commonplace to appear to merit the serious and persevering attention Ashbery has given it; it is far enough away to both elude our grasp and trick the mind by the many disguises it wears into thinking it has already been perfectly apprehended many times before. (p. 24)
Ashbery must become very adept at adjusting the poetry's pace to synchronize words, images, and lines of verse to abrupt changes of tempo in the release of ideas from exploded memory clumps. The process is evidently close to the watercolorist's art, the color-flow of ideas speeding up and slowing down and seeping into the canvas as the density of the fluid base varies from thin to thick. (p. 26)
Ashbery's creative process may account for his remarkable ingenuity of exhibiting ideas in his new poetry as a form of nature, as if ideas are themselves endowed with biological properties: chemical make-up, geological density, or geographic topography. They are "windblown fog and sand," they are "irregular clumps of crystals," they are "last stubborn leaves ripped / from wet branches"—they are anything but just ideas. Our free flow of thought-associations soaks up the passing events, mingles them with memory images, pictures. This idea-flux draws constituents into its labyrinth from all sources, human and terrestrial, present and past. The voltage of feeling running through the charged network of ideas is the form of energy that sustains the mind of this poem's to-and-fro swervings between yesterday and today. (pp. 26-7)
Ashbery's aesthetic canons are tempered by the professional art critic's inveterate suspiciousness of standards, trends, prevailing fashions of the present day, with strong predilections for standards of austerity and elegance derived from the timeless classics. It appears that Ashbery's skeptical bent of mind spreads from the art world to every other sector of contemporary life. Hence, the circuitous and roundabout tactics by which he maneuvers into position to grapple with his own life in the present Age. Following elaborate rituals of delay and postponement, he approaches the grand moments of full headlong encounter with today—for Ashbery, this is evidently the most difficult and unnatural direction for the art of the poem to pursue, and, as such, the most arduous challenge for the author to undertake. By a succession of exquisite shifts of stance, Ashbery negotiates his passage through the "long corridor" of vision ("the 'poetic' straw-colored space") from Parmigianino's painting back to the present day, a voyage beset with snares, hazards, traps which must be circumvented by delicatest maneuvers. Ashbery finds that to accomplish his own unique rapprochement with the present, he must improvise the most exacting strategy of feints and passes, rearguard checks and balances. The peaceable iconoclast braces himself to advance into a revolutionary new vanguard.
John Ashbery's mission, awakening him to the necessity of taking an increasing role in public life, has driven him from the comfortable sanctuary of the dream. He has recognized himself to be one of a dwindling handful of spokesmen who can accurately elucidate the special quarrels of today's artist with his culture and one of the indispensably fewer who can lead a vanguard to surmount the near-insuperable obstacles to a towering visionary career carried to its limits. He must of necessity (the divinity and muse who guides his craft, his task of vision), come to terms with his today, meeting his hostile milieu on the adversary's own home ground to invite revolutionary search and inquiry on both sides. That is his honorable quest. (pp. 27-8)
No other poet of our day has so profoundly mirrored and illuminated our time's duplicities, evasions, apostasies—the outright fraudulence of its neglect of resources of America's dream-life…. No other poet has struggled so unremittingly to create a cosmos in the body of the poem strong enough to resist and massively counteract the perils, the "urgency," of our anti-cultural climate. If the dream-centers of the city have gone bankrupt, those of the artist's medium rage for a radical and uncompromising esthetic of self-renewal and self-replenishment. Ashbery is creating a medium which both exhibits by its craft and elucidates by the marvelous labyrinth of its intellectual content and dramatic structure the inexhaustibility of its dream-resources, the gorgeous fountaining of fresh images and novel ideas begotten in the poet by the cross-fertilizing of his own imagination with "dreams and inspirations" delivered to him on waves generated, periodically, by Parmigianino's painting…. The wellspring of the past—gushing into the present—continually re-stocks Ashbery's dream-reservior, creating, for a time, the illusion of infinite bounty. His art medium militates against the depletion of its resources, to perpetuity, by improvising a mode of delivery that simulates perpetual motion, the poem's structural machinery imitating a perpetuum mobile. (p. 32)
Ashbery declares his readiness, for the first time, to make his peace with today—the world of the present, and to come to terms with his own native city. Ashbery's New York is unique, as is the contemporary moment it inhabits. It is the world's central city, as Ashbery aspires to be the country's central poet. If New York is a "logarithm / of other cities," past and present, Ashbery perceives himself to be a logarithm of other artists, his central poem ("the sample of everything as it / may be imagined outside time … all, in the refined, assimilable state") the logarithm of other important art works, of yesterday, of today. A logarithm is the exponent or power to which a number must be raised to produce a given number. The logarithm is a marvelously apt metaphor for illuminating the enigmas of the elusive today, the present, the "nondescript never-to-bedefined daytime," which—to Ashbery's surprise—is now incontestably revealed to be "the secret of where it takes place," both the technical process of drafting our art and the auxiliary process of sifting out of the countless layers of memory and personality that constitute a human self—the seat of identity—at any given moment…. Both processes are found to be indissolubly anchored in today's spotlight, the present moment in history…. (p. 35)
Both the mathematical concept of the logarithm, and the language of today's exact science in which it is couched, signify the startling advances of this poem's art over Ashbery's earlier work in its commitment to "siphon off the life" of contemporary daily actualities, drawing intellectual and linguistic resources directly from the city's workaday world of business and technology. The artist in his studio must make his "lair" in the present, whether he fancies that today's climate welcomes him or not. He cannot function viably today if he is centered in a mythology cut off from contemporary raw materials in a dream-exile, or exiled dream-life…. For Ashbery, this realization has been perhaps more delayed than a proportionate coming-to-terms-with-the-present in the work of most other American contemporaries. (p. 36)
Constitutionally, Ashbery has preferred—with Stevens and Parmigianino—to found his vision of reality in the shadow-life, the life of the timeless human spirit which transcends the present in "thoughts of tomorrow." In Self-Portrait, he dedicates his noblest energies to casting his shadow into the world of the future. (p. 40)
Ashbery finds that he must adopt the stance of a revolutionary if he is to deal with today at all. If ever there has been a moment in history ripe for radical change, Ashbery's today is that moment…. Though Ashbery does not ascribe to the poet the promethean role of "unacknowledged legislator of the world," he makes claims to a prowess in the poet which is a near approach to Shelley's hyperbole. The poet does not beget—or conceive—the great change, but he catches its scent in the wind. (p. 43)
Throughout the poem, Ashbery has been feeding upon the special nutrients of the portrait, enriching his own dream life, mediating between past and present, but now he calls for a major shift of stance, a radical pivoting and re-focussing of perspective. Ashbery knows, beyond melioration, the terror of the sizable risk he takes. Prior to this passage, all encounters with the self-portrait were moderate and safely calculable hazards. If the painting deflected, shifted focus, or failed to match the demands or expectations he fixed upon it; or indeed, if the painting recoiled from his visionary trance altogether, he could safely withdraw, incubate in creative reverie, and resume his engagement with the painting refreshed. But now, he must subject the painting to the one irreversible test. This is the pivotal moment. Ashbery is about to cross the great Continental Divide in time. (p. 47)
At this moment in the poem, all previous interactions between Parmigianino and Ashbery appear to have been rehearsals, ceremonies of initiation. All legitimate preliminaries have played themselves out. By a succession of raids on past genius, Ashbery has trained himself to mediate between past and present, to build a psychic bridge between them, carrying provisions from one to the other. But now, he braces himself for the final exhaustive raid. He senses that the key to the change we need to survive in spirit today dwells in the beautiful whole-mindedness and clear-sightedness of Parmigianino's self-portrait. The message waits there, undisturbed…. Ashbery gambles his elaborate and labyrinthine vision on the latter explanation in this grand canvas, his most valiant enterprise. He makes his bet with fate on a wild guess, an existentialist hunch guided by blind instinct—how else to make a wager with the invisible world?
The creative mind of our times is blocked. It must be unplugged somehow. Hence, Ashbery's lines, in this crucial section of the poem, evoke the authentic nuance of total risk, total surrender to chance against the odds. (pp. 47-8)
The painting invites all spectators to share in its trance. To live in the world of the art work, to be a part of it, is far more than an ordinary esthetic experience—it becomes the chief preoccupation, even obsession, of our mind's activity. But, even so, the essential seat of himself, the very core of Ashbery's being, was secretly withheld. It clung to his own time, his own city, body, face, name! Who he is remained intact.
But now, he would be transfigured, changed profoundly in the uttermost depths of himself, by the painting's action upon him. Ashbery was drawn irresistibly to this luminous painting, as I to this one poem, because it contains—in embryo—the change he needs to be reborn in the self, and thus, to survive in spirit through his Age's hard chilled time….
Ashbery finds that he must welcome a different kind of interaction with the painting, one that can never be repeated, a kiss-of-death encounter. It is no longer sufficient to be the ideal recipient of the painting's beauties. He must invite the art work to inhabit him, the portrait to resume and complete its unfinished life within his psyche…. (p. 49)
A new species of poetic identity, linking enchanted being with enlightened mentality as they have rarely been joined—wedded—in contemporary poetry: this is the salient new dimension that most impressively abides in Self-Portrait! The vivacious grand drama of dawning awareness moves into the foreground of this heretofore unexplored art mode: fecundity of ideas, mental excitations, exposed hyper-activity of thought speaking out—for the reader to witness so much power and exercizing of mind on exhibition in the broad canvas of this sumptuous masterwork is to be reminded that it is normal and correct, after all, for the poet to be a tirelessly thinking being in the body of the poem. (p. 51)
Since the beginning of his career, Ashbery has been obsessed with designing poetic forms capacious enough to embrace all key dimensions of contemporary life. The dazzling new vivacity of Ashbery's style, in this major poem, may be ascribed to his successful improvising of technical means to bring the poetry's art into closer touch with indigenous commonplace events in his day-to-day life. A reader notes, with surprise, the accelerated flux of sensory excitation in Ashbery's poetic diction. He achieves a broader realism in his language, drawing upon the widest possible range of contemporary native American resources:
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
Nor indeed would any previous Ashbery poem have been like this one, a poem which—in its gorgeously sculpted detail—achieves a dense lapidary texture. It is a style replete with Ashbery's most incisive experimental writing, a language that abounds with lavishly engraved images, pictures, emblems. His language, in its prodigal variety, draws upon an astonishingly broad frame of reference in the specialized vocabularies of the modern fine arts and sciences…. (p. 57)
In "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," John Ashbery breaks new ground in the archaeology of global art. Toward the end of the poem, Ashbery's great archaeological finding surfaces, and gradually, it assumes definitive shape for the reader. Not only are all the details of Francesco Parmigianino's portrait stamped with his unique artist personality, but his distinctive spiritual handprint—indelibly marking the wind—materializes and rematerializes across the centuries. (p. 58)
In the poem's final pages, Ashbery awakens to the shortcomings of his habitation in the painting's cosmos, a universe complete in itself. Neither the esthetic it espoused, nor the styles of perception it tutored, will suffice to prepare today's artist to come to terms with today, to make his own peace with the contemporary moment…. To have shared the vision of Francesco's portrait, for a time, has been sufficient reward and fulfillment, in itself; but occupancy in the mentor's surviving masterpiece—though it provided fecund kindling to Ashbery's dream-life, sending him exotica of sensations on recurring waves of arrival—is recognized, finally, to have been a default of identity. Any exile, or refuge, from the present is found to be, at best, temporary. (pp. 59-60)
Ultimately, in dealing with our own unique moment in history, each absolutely different day of the present we keep cresting back into, no one can help us. As in facing death, in coming to terms with each special context of present experience the artist is fundamentally alone, a pioneer-existentialist, a pilgrim staking claims in the foreign country of the newly hatched today. Each today is a genuine original, a novel unique webbing—a "special lapidary todayness" of "sunlight casting twig-shadows"—to be identified in its complexity, its wonderfully stark and cleanly delineated precision of details. Each today is a rebirth, each sunrise spawning a novel interplay of lights and shadows. How hard the poet must work to trace the outlines of this unfamiliar and strange terrain that unfolds one new face after another! The elusive today.
As Ashbery returns to the present for the last time, witnessing Parmigianino's "globe as it sets," the change inhabits him and is carried forward into our own day. The author-protagonist, a first inter-epoch astronaut travelling through the time-machine of the painting, has accomplished this miraculous adventure of being transported bodily into the past time zone without injury, and makes the return trip unharmed ("nerves normal, breath normal"). It is the normal ordinary man, in good health, in full command of his faculties, who has returned unimpaired. No avantgardist freak, no madman, no rarefied obscurantist-elitest, he is an ordinary skilled laboring man of our own day (one who works harder than most perhaps at skillful dreaming), as surprised by his hard-bought new acquisition of simple normality, his charter and passport to a humble domestic life in the present, as we can ever be. His unconditional voyaging into the cosmos of the great past, leaving behind no human part—body and soul, both irreducibly transported—is at last revealed to have been the fixed ransom qualifying him to embrace, as if for the first time, his full "man-size quotient" of an artist-livelihood in the world of today. (pp. 60-1)
Laurence Lieberman, "Unassigned Frequencies: Whispers Out of Time" (originally published in The American Poetry Review March-April, 1977), in his Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964–77 (© 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1977 by Laurence Lieberman; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 3-61.
Most of the poems in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror sound like comic-portentous prolegomena to—well, that's the question. To something that never actually happens: humming and ha'ing raised to its highest point. The charm—which one sees—lies in the engaging phrases, the occasional grand gesture, the reassuringly slangy manner (there must be hard sense in the vicinity of that!), and in the frequent spurts of intelligent talk, most clearly heard in the early stages of the title poem…. These virtues add up to the sum of themselves, and since the modish poetry-fancier prizes this phenomenon, he prizes the poems, even though they never quite transpire….
[These] poems are commentaries on poems Ashbery might have written if he were not writing commentaries on them. There is nothing casual here, despite Ashbery's air of having just slipped gratefully out of the lecture hall and his academic gown and into something more comfortable. These absent-mindednesses require much attention, these ignorances are the fruit of much excogitation, there is a craft in stringing these randomnesses together like this. If only the curtain-raiser would end! What a good poet Ashbery would be, if he took to writing poetry…. We are used to poetry as therapy, its abiding value, alas, it would seem. Here is poetry as the neurosis itself.
D. J. Enright, "Curtain Raisers," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of D. J. Enright), August 18, 1977, p. 221.