For John Ashbery, there is no memory or experience that can be taken at face value. There always exists more than meets the proverbial eye. The title poem of the collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is considered one of the most remarkable long contemporary poems written in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is an extraordinary autobiographical construction, though not traditional autobiography. Ashbery has no intention of revealing salacious details of his personal life. He is more concerned with revealing what cannot be truly revealed.
The title of Ashbery’s collection, and the poem of the same name, is named for a Renaissance painting by Italian artist Parmigianino, whose Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) has been recognized as a brilliant work of art. Ashbery was inspired by this painting after seeing it in person for the first time in 1959. In this collection, Ashbery ponders the nature of self-portraits and what they expose about the subject. He understands that distortion is inevitable, especially for a portrait that is revealed through a convex mirror. He takes aim at what may merely be an illusion, a beautiful illusion, yet not the truth that poets are supposedly in need of discovering. Ashbery concludes that words may not be able to fully describe what the poet senses about the nature of a painting, or about the nature of him- or herself. In a larger sense, then, Ashbery is contemplating how art itself is to be perceived.
In 1976, Ashbery was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Ashbery first burst onto the poetry scene in the 1950’s. His 1956 collection Some Trees had been chosen by poet W. H. Auden as the winning manuscript for the Yale Series of Younger Poets program. Since that time, Ashbery has established himself as one of the leading American poets of his generation. He also is an art critic of note, immersing himself in the language of the genre. By doing so, Ashbery has produced poetry that is more dense with references to the art world. For the casual reader his poetry can seem almost impenetrable. For most of his early career he was read by a small but devoted number of admirers. Several critics found his poetry too self-absorbed for its own good. For the poet himself, he believed that language should by employed to participate in a stimulating game of chance.
Ashbery, whose poetry is a maze, an intricate puzzle to be solved, has taken pride in his creative unpredictability and his unorthodox approach to poetry. By the early 1970’s, he had published several provocative volumes, including The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Rivers and Mountains (1966), and Three Poems (1972). From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, he lived in Paris. During his Paris years, Ashbery absorbed everything French, including the language, the culture, the art, and the poetry. His poetry was dramatically altered by his years abroad. He was influenced by everything around him, including both “high” and “low” culture. Because of the breadth of his knowledge and the playfulness of his poetic approach, the poems incorporate a vast array of subjects. Because he is not tied to any one style, Ashbery demands much from himself and his readership. Taking inspiration...
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