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(Photo credit: Thomas Victor)Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

By John Ashbery

Original Publisher: Carcanet Press
Current Publisher: Penguin

Evie Shockley writes:

Don’t we all already know what there is to know—what we want to know—about John Ashbery’s poems?  There is consensus on the lack of consensus about what he is up to in his pieces: he is either brilliantly difficult, writing in ways that emphasize the incoherence of our lives (rather than using language and narrative to create the illusion of order), or he is annoyingly difficult for the sake of being difficult, creating poems that offer the reader no rewards for struggling through them, that keep all the jokes and insights to themselves.

It might be easy for me to say now, in 2011 (it must have been a different matter in 1975), but after reading Ashbery’s best-known and most-lauded book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, from cover to cover, my feeling is that the work is not difficult at all—which is not to say that it’s “easy” either.  I think what I want to get at is that the difficulteasy spectrum is not the most useful one to engage for these purposes.  Or that to speak of these poems as being “difficult” is to problematize something that we don’t usually see as a problem: that we have to learn how to do things we don’t know how to do.  Or maybe I mean that it’s not fair to call something difficult, when in fact it is impossible: e.g., it isn’t “difficult” to take a photograph with a blanket, you just can’t do it—and there’s no good reason for you to think the blanket ought to function that way.  To call an Ashbery poem “difficult” because it doesn’t tell us a linear narrative or offer a pearl of wisdom at the end is to refuse to accept that this is not what his poems are for and, moreover, to indict the poems for having functions that we have yet to learn how to see and exploit.  I would say that Self-Portrait makes an excellent training manual.

For example, the poem “The One Thing That Can Save America” speaks to the issue of assuming that an Ashbery poem (a blanket) will deliver a message (take a picture):

            I know that I braid too much my own
            Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
            They are private and always will be.
            Where then are the private turns of event
            Destined to boom later like golden chimes
            Released over a city from a highest tower?
            The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
            And you instantly know what I mean?

It would seem that Ashbery, via this speaker, is responding to (or anticipating) his detractors, those who have accused him of writing poems that don’t give readers the key that unlocks them.  But even as he appears to concede their point, the language mounts a defense of Ashberian poetics.  The poems may comprise perceptions that are “snapped-off” and wildly associative, yes—but check out his verb.  The poet-speaker doesn’t “list” or “rattle off” or “gather” his perceptions; he “braids” them, a word-choice that emphasizes the artistic process and the intricate beauty of the result.  (It’s also true that braiding is one of those things that looks and seems difficult, until you learn how to do it.)  He then challenges the idea that the fragmented thoughts and experiences we have could ever simply be communicated to someone else, first in a statement and subsequently in a delightfully colloquial rhetorical question.  Between these two fairly straightforward challenges, he gestures toward the same point in a strikingly figurative image.  These lines themselves might be said to illustrate his “braiding,” as they constitute a single defense woven from strands of visibly (or audibly?) distinct diction.

Some critics describe Ashbery’s work as inviting the reader’s participation, much like one of my favorite prose writers, Toni Morrison.  From this perspective, we might say that his poems don’t give us readers a key, because we already have a huge, round ring of countless keys, in all shapes and sizes.  The pleasure of the poem, then, is in trying to figure out which of our keys might help us access something meaningful.  I won’t outline for you here all the keys I tried as I moved through this poem, but I will note one of the most satisfying moments.  It came in the final stanza of the poem, which figures the “one thing that can save America” as “a letter that never arrives”:

            Day after day, the exasperation
            Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
            The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
            The message was wise, and seemingly
            Dictated a long time ago.
            Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
            Not arrived.

I pull out the key labeled “The Declaration of Independence,” whose prongs are formed by the phrases “all men are created equal” and “certain inalienable rights.”  It fits.  It clicks.  A little door opens.  Not in the poem, but in me.

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Richard Hugo for What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American
  • P.J. Laska for D.C. Images
  • John N. Morris for The Life Beside This One
  • Leonard Nathan for Returning Your Call
  • George Oppen for Collected Poems
  • Carolyn M. Rodgers for How I Got Ovah
  • Shirley Williams for The Peacock Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: John Malcolm Brinnin, Babette Deutsch, James Scully

The Year in Literature:

  • Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Robert Hayden was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

(Photo credit: NBF archives)Other Information:

  • John Ashbery (1927- ) was born in Rochester, NY.
  • The title for Ashbery’s book was taken from the 16th Century painting done by Francesco Parmigianino.  The painting shows the artist’s reflection as it appears in a barber’s convex mirror.  Ashbery references Parmigianino’s painting within his book, using it and other works of art as a jumping-off point for his own self-reflection.  

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Reader Comments (2)

"it’s not fair to call something difficult, when in fact it is impossible: e.g., it isn’t “difficult” to take a photograph with a blanket, you just can’t do it—and there’s no good reason for you to think the blanket ought to function that way"

I love that.

March 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

Thanks! And thanks for reading!

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvie

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