Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Analysis

John Ashbery

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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,...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 671 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.