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Last Updated on September 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

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In open, free-flowing language, John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" touches on themes the rest of his poems also cover, but in distinctive ways. Ashbery is interested, as always, in observing the act of writing, in thinking about language and its limits.

The speaker describes the original Renaissance painting referred to in the title, as well as its various attributes: the physical details of the wood, the "density of the light," and the convex mirror which Parmigianino used to compose the self-portrait. The speaker juxtaposes such observations with lilting statements about the soul and what it is at its core, and he wonders aloud about our sense of reality and how our own perceptions shape it.

Launching from an extended description of the painting and its mode of composition, the speaker starts his own self-portrait with words functioning like brushstrokes. He describes the people in his life and the way they are painted onto him and the idea of his self. He sees humans as being constantly co-created by their environments. He wonders about the core—the portrait at the center of a carousel, nearing but missing a perfect rendering.

The speaker is interested in how we can relay experience, bringing up a meta-conversation: writing about the act of writing (and, by extension, any art act). In doing so, the speaker paints (with words) about painting, positing the care of the mirrored illustration in the painting and its effect on a viewer.

The speaker continues this parallel by discussing the history of the portrait and the history of this poem. He looks for commonalities but ultimately finds that the two are separate: the questions around the poem cannot be solved simply by the painting's realities.

Toward the end of the poem, the speaker continues to explore the differences between the ways various people build reality and perceive the world. He wonders about the interpretation of art and the role of the reader or viewer—particularly how they are different in relation to the work than they would be in the world. He has no set answers to these questions, but he looks at them with openness and ultimately concludes that there is no one simple and right way to look at art, or the soul, or the artist.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854

“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 leads into a contemplation of past relationships and of how thin they are in the memory—how eventually everything sifts down into a kind of blurred mush without much significance. The poem juxtaposes the speaker’s consideration of the painting (and that of other critics) with contemplation of day-to-day experience, attempting to come to some conclusion about the relation between art and life. The way in which the portrait, in its convexity, reaches out at the same time it recedes leads to the conviction that “art” may not necessarily be a satisfactory haven for truth about reality.

There is, as a result, an intellectual and tonal tussle in the poem as the speaker shuffles between the experience of the flux of life, in which constant accumulation never makes much sense, and his admiration for the world of art which is able to select and to idealize. That admiration is continually eroded by his uneasiness as to the truth of art, as the inexorable push of time and experience diminish any certainty that art has much to do with life as it is ordinarily lived:

   This alwaysHappens, as in the game whereA whispered phrase passed around the roomEnds up as something completely different.It is the principle that makes works of art so unlikeWhat the artist intended. Often he findsHe has omitted the thing he started out to sayIn the first place.

Much of the poem is occupied with considering several different ways in which reality proves to be obdurate, not only in art but also in life. Ashbery tries to find some way in which the case for art can be made, and his comments upon the painting, and Parmigianino’s work in general, are a kind of tour-de-force example of creating poetry and art criticism at the same time. More difficulty will be confronted in dealing with the examples of how life slips and slides about, because it is there, in the main, that the images are often incomprehensible. The reader must give up any attempt to understand fully what is being said and accept a vague, dreamy sense of emotional rightness. Clarity in those passages comes and goes as the poet allows his mind to roam about in and out of rational focus.

What does become cumulatively clear is that Ashbery is not simply concerned with the painting, but with all art, including poetry. This is a major theme in his work: the inability of poetry to discover truth and to fix it once for all, because reality is always in flux and the work of art is static. Yet the poem goes even further in suggesting that Ashbery is also talking about the peculiar state of humankind—always searching for truth and always at the whim of constant change. Such a conclusion could be depressing, but in Ashbery’s poem there is a kind of genial, sophisticated acceptance. There is a celebration of humankind’s incapacity to “know,” which makes humans, in a sense, captives like the figure in the Parmigianino painting, slightly distorted and unable to escape.