Analysis

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Last Reviewed on October 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" provides a postmodern response to the sixteenth-century painting of the same name by the Italian artist Parmigianino. The poem begins with a rumination on the painting's style, in which the artist's right hand is distorted so that it appears larger than his head. This distortion causes the speaker to reflect that the painting is adopting a defensive posture, seeking to "protect / What it advertises." This develops into a meditation on the infinite regression of such a mirrored portrait, in which the portrait is the reflection of the artist, which in turn is reflected back into the painting ad infinitum.

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The speaker sees this recursive quality as evidence that the soul of the portrait is a "captive," frozen forever and unable to move, caught in an endless cycle of analysis. Such a life under the microscope, the speaker asserts, is a false way to live; the soul of the portrait is "englobed," as if under glass. Perhaps, he suggests, a person who begins to think of himself as as an object for spectators to view loses something of his humanity.

In the poem's next passage, the speaker applies this theme to his own life—and particularly to a nameless person (potentially the reader) whom he addresses in the second person. Throughout the bulk of the poem, the speaker maintains this dialectic relationship between his own interpersonal relationships and his philosophical exploration of the nature of art.

The poem's elliptical, difficult style serves as something of a convex mirror itself. Themes are distorted, mutated, and pushed out of proportion throughout the poem. This has the effect of placing the reader in the same position regarding the poem as the speaker is regarding the portrait: seeking to puzzle out meaning and to see beyond the distortions. While the poem resists an easy statement of its theme, the conclusion challenges the reader to resist artificiality, particularly the "aping / Naturalness" that is so common in daily life. A real, emotionally engaged life is to be preferred to the "cold, syrupy flow / Of a pageant," no matter how beautiful.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a long poem in free verse, its 552 lines divided into six verse paragraphs of unequal length. The title refers to a 1524 painting by the Italian artist Francesco Mazzola, also known as Il Parmigianino. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” makes the poet’s thoughts about Parmigianino’s painting the focus for a different kind of self-portrait, a self-portrait in words.

Although a poet may use the first person as the voice of a persona, a character whose outlook and experience are quite different from the poet’s, in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the voice is John Ashbery’s own. The poem represents the poet thinking out loud, revealing the processes of his own mind as he considers Parmigianino’s self-portrait.

In the first verse paragraph, Ashbery quotes from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550). Vasari describes how Parmigianino painted his self-portrait on half of a ball of wood as if his face were reflected in the surface of a convex mirror. In the resulting painting, Parmigianino’s right hand appears to be thrust forward “as though to protect/ What it advertises.” Describing the painting, the poet is also interpreting it, finding in it several paradoxes: a surface which appears to have depth, a “soul [that] is not a soul,” and “Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.”

The second verse paragraph suggests an interruption in Ashbery’s meditation. In fact, each verse paragraph represents a break in the poet’s attention as his thoughts move toward and away from the painting. As Ashbery’s attention draws away from the painting, he makes more comparisons between Parmigianino’s self-portrait and the poet’s own mind. The painting becomes a “mirror” for the poet’s thoughts. By painting a picture of himself, Parmigianino has captured for the future the illusion of the present moment, an illusion which the poet tries to duplicate in words.

In the third verse paragraph, the poet meditates on the present depicted in the painting, until his experience of the painting becomes like a dream. The poet awakens from this “dream” into his own present, less fixed and idealized than the present in Parmigianino’s painting. It is easier, the poet says, to imagine the future or to remember the past than to gain perspective on the chaotic and elusive present.

As the poet’s thoughts drift away from the painting, in the fourth verse paragraph—the poem’s shortest—he calls the painting to mind again, thinking of it as a surprising concept, “the first mirror portrait.” At first the painting appears to be an optical illusion, a mirror reflecting the poet’s own face rather than Parmigianino’s. Recognizing that illusion, the poet imagines that he has surprised the painter at his work. As the poet looks into the painting, he is looking into Parmigianino’s world and therefore into the past.

In the fifth verse paragraph, the poet wonders if the painting will survive into the future and still be in style, as it has already survived the time since Parmigianino painted it. Ashbery sees Parmigianino’s self-portrait as a metaphorical mirror in which each viewer, including those in the future, may find things that are as much in the viewer as in the painting.

The sixth and last verse paragraph, by far the poem’s longest, turns back to the painting. Questioning the role that love plays in Parmigianino’s painting, Ashbery comes back to the present. The “explosion” of details here and now is “so precise, so fine,” that “We don’t need paintings or/ Doggerel written by mature poets.” Yet the present, with “no margins,” seems not to exist when contrasted with “the portrait’s will to endure.”

The self-portrait was “a life-obstructing task” because it forced Parmigianino away from the pleasures of the present to paint a picture that looked into the future. As a result, however, “This past/ Is now here,” in “the painter’s/ Reflected face.” The poet’s present in “April sunlight” in a room in New York City is mingled with the painter’s present in the past and in memory.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

Ashbery’s poetry is often regarded as difficult. Written in free verse, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” represents what is sometimes called the stream of consciousness. Ashbery’s free verse challenges accepted notions of poetry. One of his earlier books, Three Poems (1972), is actually written in prose, partly to question the boundaries between poetry and prose. The spontaneous and open style of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” permits Ashbery to imitate both the precision and the vagueness of what flows through his mind. Because it represents the processes of his mind reflecting on the painting, Ashbery’s poem is often allusive and ambiguous.

For many years, Ashbery worked as a writer and art critic for Art News. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” includes allusions to art and art criticism as well as to music (composer Alban Berg’s comment on “a phrase in Mahler’s Ninth” symphony) and to literature (William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, c. 1609-1610). When Ashbery incorporates direct quotations from prose works in his poem, he is scrupulous about mentioning the sources of quotes. As the poet transcribes the processes of his own mind, however, he draws upon what he knows, without stopping to explain every reference.

By permitting paradoxes and ambiguities, the poem’s inclusiveness adds to its difficulty. When Ashbery says that Parmigianino’s picture is “life-obstructing,” that statement challenges its context in the poem. Works of art in general, including the poem, are more often thought of as life-enhancing. In order to capture the present, Parmigianino’s “obstruction” must stop it. Paradoxically, when it is stopped in a work of art, the present becomes the past, but it also looks into the future. The poet’s self-consciousness about the processes of his mind allows him to question his own preoccupations as he holds up the mirror to his consciousness.

When Ashbery ambiguously mentions “The shadow of the city” in the fifth verse paragraph, the city is Rome, where Ashbery says Parmigianino was painting (but not the self-portrait) while the city was being sacked by the imperial forces of Charles V of Spain in 1527. The city is also Vienna, where the poet says he saw the painting with a friend in 1959. Finally, the city is New York, where the poet is now writing the poem. That the sack of Rome was still in the future when Parmigianino was painting the self-portrait is an example of the subtlety of the poet’s concern with time.

A key pun in the poem is Ashbery’s reference to speculation, which comes “From the Latin speculum, mirror.” In a sense the poem is all speculation, as Ashbery holds Parmigianino’s painting to the mirror of the poet’s own mind. Speculation leads to ambiguity. Because the painting explains nothing, it permits contradictory interpretations. The poet wonders, for example, if Parmigianino’s hand in the painting is held forth as a shield or as a greeting.

Ashbery heightens the ambiguity of certain sentences by using unclear pronoun references. The poet begins, “As Parmigianino did it,” leaving the reader to figure out that “it” refers to the self-portrait in the poem’s title. Here, as elsewhere in the poem, the pronoun “it” implicitly includes both self-portraits, Parmigianino’s painting and Ashbery’s poem. The poet avoids saying “I” until the second verse paragraph (preferring, for example, “the attention turns” to “my attention turns”), when he says “I think of the friends.” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” uses these oblique references to imitate the evasions of the painted self-portrait.

Like the painting, the poem at once identifies and does not identify. How does the poet know that the face in the painting is Parmigianino’s? How does the reader know that the identity behind the poem’s is Ashbery’s? Parmigianino’s painting is not identical with Parmigianino any more than writing is identical with thinking. In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the phrase “As though to protect/ What it advertises” seems to describe Ashbery’s style as much as Parmigianino’s painted hand.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 129

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Ashbery: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Casper, Robert N. “Interview with John Ashbery.” Jubilat 9 (Fall/Winter, 2004): 44-50.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Moramarco, Fred. “Across the Millennium: The Persistence of John Ashbery.” American Poetry Review 33 (March/April, 2004): 39-41.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Vincent, John. “Reports of Looting and Insane Buggery Behind Altars: John Ashbery’s Queer Poetics.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Summer, 1998): 155-175.

Yau, John. “The Poet as Art Critic.” American Poetry Review 34 (May/June, 2005): 45-50.

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