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Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Poems (Penguin Poets) Paperback – January 1, 1990
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"No one now writing poetry in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time. . . . He is joining that American sequence that includes Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, and Hart Crane." --Harold Bloom
"Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is certainly one of the most sustained performances in American writing. . . . John Ashbery, more than any other contemporary, is the poet of the momentary, the transitory. This preoccupation animates everything he writes, and what he writes is some of the best poetry of our day." --The Washington Post
"Ashbery is astonishingly original, and though his mannerisms have been widely imitated, he himself has imitated no one." --Edmund White
"A style devoid of pretension and a beautiful ease of manner that is rarely less than enchanting . . . There is no one who writes quite like Ashbery, and the poetic territory he inhabits is very much his own." --Paul Auster
From the Back Cover
John Ashberry won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'. Ashberry reaffirms the poetic powers that have made him such an outstanding figure in contemporary literature. This new book continues his astonishing explorations of places where no one has ever been.
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Ashbery's poetry and this volume resist paraphrase. Each poem includes lines and figures which are indivually striking and often beautiful; but the poems cannot be read discursively. The diction shifts markedly in the poems from the solemn to the profane. There are sudden shifts in person and in tenses. Frequently, lines or sections are clear enough, but a poem as a whole will appear opaque. There is a sense in Ashbery's work of cutting through the tendency to rationalize and to focus on the joy of experience in its diversity. The concreteness and detail of the poem show a love of things in their variety and keen emotional responses. The poems frequently have the sense of an interior monologue or a discussion among friends. For all their difficulty, the poems have a certain lightness of touch. The poetry is urbane and shows great knowledge of art, music, literature, movies, and popular culture. And with reading, some sense of what Ashbery is about becommes clear.
"Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" was a watershed book for Ashbery because it is somewhat more accessible than his earlier avant-garde books. Yet the difficulties remain. The title poem, Ashbery's masterpiece, is, on one level accessible to read. It moves in a narrative reflection, and can be followed, up to a point. This is still a difficult poem which will bear close and repeated readings.
The title poem is based on a painting of 1524 of the same name by Parmigianino that now is in the Kunsthistoriche Museum, Vienna. The painting shows a reflection of the artist on a convex mirror. It is marked by a seemingly distorted and large right hand, and the somewhat feminine yet intense face of the artist staring at the viewer. In his poem, Ashbery addresses the artist, discusses and questions him about his painting, and quotes commenters on the painting contemporary and modern. He describes the work and his reaction to it, e.g.
"That is the tune but there are no words
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music."
The suggestion is that words are inadequate to capture reality, which must be conceived imaginatively. As the poem progresses, it discusses tradition and interpretation and perspectivism in understanding reality. The artist's vision is brought forward as Ashbery meditates on modern life and its cacophony. The poem becomes its own reflection of Ashbery's understanding of the creative endeavor.
The short poems in this volume are overshadowed by the Self-Portrait. These poems tend to be even more elliptical than this major poem of the volume. In my reading, I tried to identify the works that I could respond to while passing over, for the present, others that seemed to me obscure. This might be a good way for other readers to approach the book.
The poems I enjoyed include the first poem, "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat, the title of which is based on a poem called "Tom May's Death" by Andrew Marvell. (1621 --1678). Ashbery begins with the words "I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free" which in the context of the poem seems to speak of the renewal of the creative endeavor. The "Poem in Three Parts" begins with a startling phrase ("Once I let a guy blow me") but proceeds to an exploration of how one responds to experience: "Who goes to bed with what/ is unimportant. Feelings are important./ Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life/ Like the wind, like tumbling clouds/ In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.""
There is a charm and a picture of adolescent sexuality in "Mixed Feelings". The poem "The One Thing that can Save America" with its sense of nostalgia as Ashbery describes the "timeless" truths of warding off danger "Now and in the future, in cool yards,/In quiet small houses in the country,/Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets." The poems "Tenth Symphony", "Fear of Death" and "City Afternoon" are among others that I enjoyed.
This book is difficult, modern poetry that may not appeal to all readers. The poems in this book are evocative and I think a sense of them can be got from sympathetic reading. This book deserves its reputation as a major work of American literature.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror belongs primarily to his middle period. It, of course, famously won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I own this edition of the work and it has held up well with multiple readings, both the actual paperback, and the text. When I initially read this volume I found it strangely troubling and thought-provoking. I felt almost physically anguished as I read it over and over again. When I first encountered it I surrendered nearly a complete month to repeatedly devouring Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. However, in the end I found that it is still not my favorite of his works. Also, I must confess that I found the short poems in the volume much more engaging than the long, title poem.
As a poet, myself, for years I have found endless inspiration within Ashbery's writing (as well as the writing of many others, including the particularly noteworthy Charles Simic). I think for those first approaching Ashbery's work, this is probably the best place to start. I believe you will find that you either love or hate his work. If you discover that you love it, move on to other works such as The Mooring of Starting Out - a 1 volume edition of his first 4 volumes of poetry, or Where Shall I Wander - one of his latest works...or, there are so many others to choose from, all good, solid works of poetry. If you've already read other works by Ashbery, but have not read this work, you need to get yourself a copy and get to it. I am convinced that it would be a mistake to overlook this very important and engaging work.
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As a teacher of literature and a poetry lover since childhood, I've read thousands upon...Read more