Tuesday, September 5, 2017

In Memoriam: John Ashbery

John Ashbery (1927-2017) is recognized as one of our greatest poets. He won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Yale Younger Poets Prize, Bollingen Prize, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Griffin International Award, as well as a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956. The competition was judged by W. H. Auden, who famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript. Ashbery published a spate of successful and influential collections in the 1960s and ‘70s, including The Tennis Court Oath (1962), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) and Houseboat Days (1977). Up until his death on September 3rd, the poet continued to publish and win awards. 

Many critics describe Ashbery’s poems as a “verbal canvas,” weighing the importance of the poet’s art criticism in France during the 1950s and ‘60s, and in New York for magazines like New York and the Partisan Review. “Modern art was the first and most powerful influence on Ashbery,” according to Helen McNeil in the Times Literary Supplement, especially the vigor and inventiveness of Abstract Expressionism. (credit: poetryfoundation.org)

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a portion of which we reproduce here, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, an unprecedented triple-crown in the literary world. Essentially, a meditation on Francesco Parmigianino’s painting "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1524), the narrative poem showcases the influence of visual art on Ashbery’s style, as well as introducing one of his major subjects: the nature of creativity, particularly as it applies to the writing of poetry. 

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
by John Ashbery

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. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest?

Hear Ashbery reading “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Click here.



  1. John ashbery was a legendary poet who experienced life closely and expressed it beautifully through his poetry. We lost him this year but his work will be remembered for ages.

  2. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery...reminds me of my days of youth when i used to lie beneath that big oak tree and read my poems...this one i enjoyed the most.

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