Recently, while writing about ekphrastic poetry in a few reviews, I was reminded of my fondness for John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” perhaps the best known contemporary poem inspired by a painting. First published in the August 1974 issue of Poetry, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” later served as the title poem for Ashbery’s celebrated 1975 collection that won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Currently, in honor of Ashbery’s 80th birthday this month (July 28), Poetry features the original pages of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” at its online archives site.
Coincidentally, at the time of its publication I was a first-year graduate student in Ashbery’s poetry writing class at Brooklyn College. The graduate program in creative writing had just begun, and this was his first teaching position after nearly a decade (1955-1965) of writing art criticism in Paris for the Herald Tribune, then working until 1972 as an executive editor at Art News in New York. Indeed, the 1974 contributor’s note in Poetry accompanying “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” announced to everyone that John had joined the faculty at Brooklyn College.
I remember well the excitement surrounding the volume’s release as my classmates and I attended the publication party. The date written by John beneath his inscription in my copy of the book indicates Monday, May 12, as the evening of the reception. I also recall other celebrations, at Ashbery’s Chelsea apartment and elsewhere, as the book became famous for its unusual feat, in a single year receiving each of the three major book awards for poetry, what we jokingly labeled as winning the “Triple Crown,” a term I’ve seen repeated a number of times in print over the decades. A few years later I was thrilled and honored when John wrote a prefatory note for my first book of poems, choosing to borrow a couple of lines from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to describe unexpected perceptions and contemplations he found in my work.
Although at the time everyone knew he’d achieved something extraordinary, even today I’m amazed by the great amount of attention this lone book of poetry and that particular title poem have garnered. I’m not aware of any poem from the last forty years that has had as much critical commentary written about it. Indeed, one might have to look back to Ginsberg’s “Howl” to find a recent poem with a greater history of commentary. Over the more than three decades that have passed, I’ve noted the ongoing resonance and persistent guidance “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” yet demonstrates for many readers and writers of poetry.
This week as I returned to read Ashbery’s poem once more, I again quickly realized how significant this work has become, both as a touchstone for late-twentieth-century poetry and as an influence for many contemporary poets continuing into the twenty-first century, though not all necessarily initiating precisely his particular style of writing. Most who have followed in Ashbery’s footsteps have written with a greatly liberated sense of connection between observation and speculation, producing meditative poems containing playful and intellectual self-reflection often presented with language or imagery that surprises, at times maybe even befuddles some in its audience. Certainly, such a way of relating one’s perceptions to readers was not new; however, Ashbery’s speaker in this poem seemed almost to reinvigorate interest in poetry where “words are only speculation / (From the Latin speculum, mirror),” as the poet proposes.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” begins as an examination of the sixteenth-century Parmigianino painting of the same title. In fact, the speaker’s opening lines sound similar to some of the descriptive and engaging language one might find in Ashbery’s numerous reviews or essays on artworks and artists: “As Parmigianino did it, the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect / What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams, / Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together / In a movement supporting the face, which swims / Toward and away like the hand / Except that it is in repose.”
Not surprisingly, Ashbery once acknowledged in an interview with David Lehman: “That was the first time I ever took a painting as the subject for a poem. And I did it only after I left Art News and supposed that I wouldn’t be involved with writing about art anymore. It was as though I had been consciously avoiding this particular input while I was in the business of being an art editor, as though I shouldn’t be writing what is so close to my daily business.” Indeed, Ashbery had first seen the original painting in Vienna fifteen years before he rediscovered it in a collection of reproductions bought while browsing at a small bookstore and decided to focus upon it for his new poem.
However, as many reviewers and literary critics have noted throughout the years since its publication, much of the poem’s strength lies in its revelations about Ashbery’s perceptions, his self-portrait as a poet who nevertheless knows words, like the brush strokes in a painting, may not always be fully sufficient in rendering experience. One may view art as a fictitious substitute, though a valuable representation, for actual experience. Even “the portrait / Is the reflection once removed,” placed at a distance, as well as reversed and distorted by the physical shape of an object: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly.” Similarly, Ashbery suggests the words in poems sometimes prove inadequate: “They seek and cannot find the meaning in music, / We see only postures of the dream.”
Throughout the poem readers witness a blending of personae, particularly the way pronouns shift and at times mix the painter with the poet. Although Ashbery appears to be addressing Parmigianino in the poem, the voice of the speaker also seems self-reflexive sometimes, so much so that a certain amount of confusion contributes to an already ample supply of attractive or amusing ambiguity filled with allusive remarks: “you could be fooled for a moment / Before you realize the reflection / Isn’t yours. You feel then like one of those / Hoffmann characters who have been deprived / Of a reflection, except that the whole of me / Is seen to be supplanted by the strict / Otherness of the painter in his / Other room. We have surprised him / At work, but no, he has surprised us / As he works.”
Later in the poem, Ashbery speaks of confusion with the way time is perceived and portrayed, perhaps even delayed or stayed, by forms of art: “I used to think they were all alike, / That the present always looked the same to everybody / But this confusion drains away as one / Is always cresting into one’s present. / Yet the ‘poetic,’ straw-colored space / Of the long corridor that leads back to painting, / Its darkening opposite—is this / Some figment of ‘art,’ not to be imagined / As real, let alone special?” The speaker even cleverly relates how the original artwork endures, but is often distanced from viewers, and routinely all that remains are poor surrogates: “the public / Is pushing through the museum now so as to / Be out by closing time. You can’t live there. / The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how: / Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime / To learn and are reduced to the status of / Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates / Are rare.”
John Ashbery has always been unpredictable and has experimented with different manners of narrative (or lack of narrative) within his poems, often incorporating seemingly arbitrary or stray elements and apparently disjointed phrases into his work. As he stated in his interview with Lehman: “Art with any serious aspirations toward realism still has to take into account the fact that reality escapes laws of perspective and logic, and does not naturally take the form of a sonnet or a sonata.”
In his poetry-writing classes, Ashbery always emphasized this attitude. Frequently, he assigned exercises that would free students from conscious construction of a poem and urge them to write pieces arising from the subconscious. I remember times he asked my classmates and me to borrow lines randomly from one another to start a poem or recommended we write an imaginary translation of a poem from another language that we don’t understand. Indeed, I once jokingly chose John’s own poem, “Glazunoviana,” as the text to translate, and I wrote my own poem ignoring meaning in the original; instead, I solely used the lyrical sounds of the lines in his work for inspiration.
John later introduced me to the music of Glazunov, as well as other classical composers, when a core group of four members from class gathered at his apartment for an informal seminar. In turn, Ashbery always expressed curiosity about elements of pop culture. In fact, I recall a time when we were driving from Brooklyn to John’s Manhattan apartment, and all the while the four of us were being quizzed by our curious teacher about rock music and other aspects of current culture. He especially seemed to want to know about the rise of those rock or folk singers and recent other American trends whose beginnings he may have missed during his years in Europe. Clearly, Ashbery’s interest in bringing folklore or popular culture—even movie stars, song lyrics, or cartoon characters—into his writing can be seen in many of his poems over the years.
On one occasion, during another small gathering of members from our class at Ashbery’s apartment, some of us played a form of the “exquisite corpse” game in which we alternated placing lines of poetry on a page in John’s typewriter. (In fact, when he took his turn and sat to type his lines, Ashbery’s posture appeared nearly identical to that represented in the well-known portrait of him by Larry Rivers. Even now, each time I see the image of John hunched over his typewriter, I’m brought back to that evening.) When we completed the poem and read it aloud, we immediately realized how someone else’s contribution might have unexpectedly altered our own perspectives, forcing each of us to draw more on our imaginations and maybe reach further into the subconscious, perhaps not all that different from the manner Parmigianino’s painting stirred Ashbery’s imaginative reactions.
Consequently, I’m not surprised by a passage in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” about playing such games as ways for seeking inspiration. This portion has become one of my favorite sections, a part of the poem that suggests distraction from intent and distortion of form can help create interesting art: “This always / Happens, as in the game where / A whispered phrase passed around the room / Ends up as something completely different. / It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike / What the artist intended. Often he finds / He has omitted the thing he started out to say.” As a result, the poet or painter may “create something new.” Significantly, readers will note that the final phrase of the poem will again mention “whispers.”
As the poem comes closer to its end, the speaker addresses two crucial concepts captured during the contemplation of Parmigianino’s painting: otherness and time. Of course, the painter’s reflection in the mirror, as well as its depiction in the portrait, represents a sense of otherness. But so too does the artwork derived from the mind of the poet, whose eventual creation comes as a pleasant revelation, something one could not consciously cause, but one invents when allowing thought association and wordplay during the composition process. Perhaps for the poet, the persona developed in the writing of a poem and revealed through its speaker stands as the equivalent of the artist’s mirror reflection, closely resembling the author, yet in places distorted or even reversed.
However, art also exists as a tool that holds its subject in place, preserving a moment in time, so that the past is always evident in the present. As Ashbery’s speaker observes: “This past / Is now here: the painter’s / Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving / Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned / Frequency.” Just as artists of the past influence the present, so too do future viewers cooperate in shaping reaction to it. Indeed, in many ways an artwork becomes dependent upon its spectators for fabrication of new or evolving perspectives and further appreciation.
If the artist can only supply a surface image, as Parmigianino does (“everything is surface. The surface is what’s there . . ..”), then it is up to the spectators to provide depth. In his work—just as the personae of the painter and the poet sometimes seem to blend—Ashbery also merges the two functions when he acts both as spectator and artist, and with this disclosure, Ashbery indirectly appears to invite his readers to do likewise, to speculate (remembering the word’s root means “mirror”), engaging in self-reflection as part of their response to the poem he’s written. Perhaps he includes his readers when he prefers the plural pronoun near the poem’s end: “We have seen the city: it is the gibbous / Mirrored eye of an insect.”
Knowing one of the poet’s prime instruments is his use of memory, a tool that filters elements of reality and supplies readers with revealing misremembered details or important assorted distortions, perhaps parallel to the misshapen and wrongly proportioned items in Parmigianino’s portrait, Ashbery may be additionally recognizing his own frailty as an artist—the inherent inadequacy of any artist—and speaking of his shared ruminations in the last lines of the poem, where he refers to the “cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time.” In any case, those whispers he offers in this poem about an artist of another time also continue to be heard by today’s readers, more than thirty years later, and surely will be perceived as significant by inquisitive readers with novel perceptions long into the future.
Sor Juana’s fame rests on her lyrical poetry. Her work is highly praised for its use of symbolism, decorative and exotic imagery, hyperbole, contrast, paradox, and references to important fields of learning in her time, such as philosophy, theology, and science. While the modern reader may occasionally wish for a more personal and individual voice behind her writings’ highly stylized conventions, her work clearly places her among the poets of the Baroque tradition of Spain. She shares in this tradition with writers like Luis de Góngora y Argote and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Her poems are demonstrations of talent in manipulating language and form, rather than personal revelations. From the beginning, Sor Juana’s writing shows skill in using the styles of her time. Her intelligence and extensive reading are evident. From the time she entered the convent in 1669, Sor Juana wrote many poems, but it is impossible to date them exactly because the originals have been lost and because her style does not exhibit much change. Her works show a great sense of form and proportion and an ability with wordplay and contrasts.
Sor Juana cultivated the full range of poetry typical for her times, including courtly poems, occasional verse (for special occasions and poetry contests), humorous poetry, religious verses (especially villancicos, carols composed to be sung on a religious holiday), and love poetry. Her courtly poems are numerous, but the love poetry is considered more important—among them are some poems considered to be Sor Juana’s best.
The critics of her time did not find it strange that a nun would write love poetry. She wrote as a woman of the upper classes and enjoyed the protection of the court. Of course, at the same time she was writing villancicos, an appropriate activity for a nun. Her love poems explore conventional aspects of the theme: the pain of rejection, the beauty of the beloved, the irrationality of being in love, and the emotion of pure and distant love. Some of the poetry is addressed to a shadowy male figure named Silvio or Fabio while other times she speaks in a male persona and addresses her verses to a woman. The latter poems correspond most nearly to convention.
Baroque poetry is characterized by extravagant description and a love of the exotic. Sor Juana’s verses incorporate her homeland, Mexico, which was certainly an exotic place from the European perspective. As Mexican poet and cultural critic Octavio Paz has noted, the mestizos and mulattoes she describes are primarily picturesque and semicomic, in keeping with the seventeenth century view of the low position of such people. One poem introduces an herb doctor and his sorcerer’s brew, while another, a villancico, presents the tocotín, a lively Aztec dance complete with Nahuatl words.
When Sor Juana describes her world at court, she creates portraits, exploring as she does so the differences between the subject and his or her portrait. One poem, speaking of a flattering portrait of herself, reflects upon life’s illusion and vanity, which ends with death and a return to dust. Other portraits, like one of Lisarda, make fun of the literary style in which they are written, using self-parody. This type of literary game, which is hard for the modern reader to appreciate, contains many imaginative and charming moments.
Writing was an integral part of Sor Juana’s identity, and some of her poems use imagery that identifies her with her pen. In one example, her pen produces words of mourning, which she calls black tears. Since pluma in Spanish means both pen and feather, flight and writing can be related with a play on the same word. Pluma in turn represents the whole wing, and the wing contributes to an image of flight. First Dream, for example, identifies intellectual striving and boldness with Phaeton’s mythological failed flight in Apollo’s chariot.
In the area of religious drama, Sor Juana wrote three plays of the type called an auto sacramental, a one-act play performed during the feast of Corpus Christi. Her best known of these is The Divine Narcissus. Although performed for Corpus Christi, the theme of the Eucharist is very often not central to the action of an auto. These plays, derived from medieval religious plays, were often performed with much pageantry and elaborate costumes. All of Sor Juana’s three autos were introduced with prologues called loas. The loa before The Divine Narcissus portrays an Aztec ceremony in which Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, was broken apart and eaten—a clear parallel to the Christian Eucharist.
Sor Juana’s most personal works are the poems that address the price of her intellectual distinction. One of her most famous asks why the world hounds her and what harm is done if she chooses to fill her mind with things of beauty rather than worry about outward, physical beauty. She was certainly well aware that being a woman attracted gushy, condescending praise, as well as harsh criticism, for her intellectual accomplishments. In one poem, she wonders whether European readers are too willing to see perfection in her work because a woman who writes well is so unusual, such a special case. Whether criticized or praised, Sor Juana surely experienced the isolation of a woman who was not living within the accepted sphere.
The Divine Narcissus
First produced: El divino Narciso, c. 1680 (first published, 1690; English translation, 1945)
Type of work: Play
This poetic drama presents a series of allegorical tableaux in which Human Nature reveals her search for Christ in the form of Narcissus.
The Divine Narcissus, based in part on the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus, is considered Sor Juana’s masterpiece of religious theater. The characters are all allegorical. The divine Narcissus...
(The entire section is 2449 words.)