Tag Archives: John Ashbery

Final Essay

David Foster Wallace: Linking “Little Expressionless Animals” to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” through Convexity and Distortion

The artistic process is often winding, taking turns in ways even the artist could never imagine. Many a time an artist’s finished product looks nothing like his or her original vision. Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” explores the way in which distortion, a key element to the convex image the painting presents, relates to the human identity. Just as artists explore the nuances of an idea throughout the creation process, so humans delve in and out of various understandings of life throughout their existences. The convexity of the mirror distorts the artist’s view of himself, and this distortion is further enhanced when the artist attempts to copy the image that he sees in the mirror. The poem takes the reader on a journey of exploratory reflection over the self-portrait in the convex mirror, ultimately presenting the possibility that reliance on mechanisms such as mirrors to grasp one’s identity, as evidenced by the portrait artist’s attempt to capture himself from his image in a mirror, is a futile practice; humans lack the ability to completely asses their identities based upon subjective, distorted qualities such as those presented in a mirror.

David Foster Wallace introduces his short story “Little Expressionless Animals” with the explanation, “Part of ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ makes use of the third stanza of John Ashbury’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,” (Wallace 5). In attributing “Little Expressionless Animals” to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, Wallace draws a direct link between the distortion created by the convex mirror in the painter’s self portrait and the distortion created by a misguided reliance on television and the media that permeates Wallace’s story. Wallace’s criticism of television’s impact on today’s American society stems from the sentiments he later expresses in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. In his essay Wallace attempts to provide the “comprehensive diagnosis” that television “fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people” (“An Interview with David Foster Wallace). Throughout “Little Expressionless Animals”, various characters wrestle to find peace with their identities. Many of these characters seek the comfort of television and mirrors, but their searches are in vain. Just as the self-portrait painter futilely struggles to accurately depict himself and his surroundings with the assistance of a convex mirror, so Wallace’s characters futilely struggle to achieve peace with the assistance of television and mirrors. The parallel between Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and Wallace’s “Little Expressionless Animals” allows Wallace to cite Ashbury’s poem as inspiration for his own story.

The very nature of the television screen replicates the distortion that the convex mirror connotes. A screen in its original state is designed to conceal, protect, or shelter something from something else. In this manner, television screens conceal, protect, and shelter television viewers from reality. Television screens create a barrier that projects illusions realistic enough to prevent people from feeling entirely isolated, but the comfort television viewers receive stops short of guiding them to an enlightened, peace-laden sense of self. The shortcoming of television screens replicates the shortcoming of mirrors that is explained by the narrator in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly; that is, enough to make the point / That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept / In suspension, unable to advance much farther / Than your look as it intercepts the picture” (Ashbury). In these lines Ashbury’s narrator explains that though the convex mirror treats the soul “humanely”, it does not assist the soul in further advancing its vision of self. Thus, convex mirrors, like television, screen the viewer and prevent him or her from reaching complete understanding of self.

The reader is first confronted with television screens in “Little Expressionless Animals” when Wallace describes the eerie way that Julie’s mother attempts to find comfort at a movie theater, only to be struck with fear. The scene describes how the woman and her child sit watching the cartoon, and how the “child’s eyes enter the cartoon” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). While the child, Julie Smith, is blinded by the illusions created by cartoon television, a man sitting in the darkness behind them violates her mother by running his fingers through her hair. Wallace describes, “The cartoon’s reflected light makes faces in the audience flicker: the woman’s eyes are bright with fear,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). The television screen of the cinema thus acts as a screen separating Julie from her mother; because Julie is caught up in the distortion that is contemporary cartoons, she is unable to see the wrongs being committed right beside her. Her vision and perception is distorted by television. Television distracts Julie enough to completely miss the fact that her mother is in a state of intense fear. Conversely, Julie’s mother enters the movie theater in an attempt to forget her tumultuous life and throw her mind into the illusions of the cartoon word. However, the cartoon world is not powerful enough to assist Julie’s mother is forgetting her unfortunate realities. No cartoon can mask the fact that a man is physically running his fingers through one’s hair. In the initial television screen descriptions of his story, Wallace conveys to the reader that television lacks the ability to bring true inner peace to its viewers; Julie’s perception of her mother’s existence is distorted by the images on the screen, while Julie’s mother’s attempts to find peace are thwarted by her futile reliance on television for salvation.

Wallace presents television as a false companion, too often mistakenly relied upon by those seeking to forget their problems, in his portrayal not just of Julie’s mother, but also in his portrayal of Faye’s mother, Dee Goddard. Dee is a woman heartbroken over her divorce and her ex-husband’s subsequent remarriage to a mutual coworker of theirs. Essentially, Dee is a lonely, depressed woman overcome by her misfortunes. Wallace’s portrayal of television during the passages of his story in which he describes Dee demonstrates how many people falsely view television as a friend upon which to lean: “’Let’s all be there’, says the television. ‘Where else would I be?’ asks Dee Goddard… ‘We bring good things to life,’ says the television. ‘So did I,’ says Dee. ‘I did that. Just once’,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 11). The dialogue between Dee and the television personifies the television as a being capable of human interaction. The fact the Dee responds to that which the television says indicates that Dee has categorized the television as something to which she can relate. Thus, Dee feels that the television is a viable companion and legitimate replacement for her ex-husband. Dee’s relationship with her television exemplifies Wallace’s idea presented in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” that he happens “to know lonely people who regard television as a veritable deux ex machine for voyeurs,” (152). The fact that lonely Dee regards television as a replacement for her ex-husband is problematic because it does not truly solve the problem of her loneliness and soul searching. Dee drinks heavily, and her daughter Faye remarks that this drinking is “for the pain”. Dee’s feelings of pain indicate that though television can distort Dee’s thinking enough to allow her to superficially believe herself to be mentally sound, television cannot solve the deep-seated psychological issues that Dee faces due to her divorce. Thus, television, like the convex mirror, distorts human perception and prevents humans from achieving a true understanding of personal identity.

Scholar Aytemis Depici writes that Wallace’s work serves to present the criticism that “television serves to distract individuals from the real world and create blankness in their inner world which conveys a loss of self” (327). The “blankness” that Depici describes relates to Julie’s personality and inner turmoil. In “Little Expressionless Animals”, Wallace describes the transformation that Julie undergoes when the cameras are pointed towards her: “Faye and Dee watch Julie as the red lights and Trebek’s face falls into the worn creases of a professional smile. Something happens to Julie Smith when the red lights light. Just a something. The girl who gets a three-score and who stares with no expression is gone. Every concavity in that person now looks to have come convex,” (20). The lack of expression in Julie’s off-camera stare parallels the “blankness” that Depici describes in his analysis. Furthermore, Wallace’s focus on the convex versus concave nature of Julie’s face again relates his story to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. The concavity of Julie’s off-camera person visually signifies her mental “blankness”. Conversely, the convexity of Julie’s on-camera person is a distortion created by the television screen. The television, like a convex mirror with the self-portrait artist, artificially fills out Julie’s concavities.

Wallace’s portrayal of the characters Julie’s mother, Dee Goddard, and Julie Smith herself reflect his view that television prevents people from achieving an enlightened sense of peace and true sense of identity. Julie hides herself in television’s distortion, allowing television to mask her tragically concave identity with its concavity. Dee Goddard attempts to find comfort in television, but her relationship with television does not remove her pain. Instead, television merely distorts Dee’s pain and masks it from both she and others. Because television cannot solve Dee’s psychological problems, Dee abuses alcohol in order to dull her pain. Julie’s mother also seeks to use television to forget her problems, and television’s inability to solve these problems is even more apparent that Dee’s situation: Julie’s mother never gains even temporary solace. Rather, Julie’s mother is perpetually afraid, fleeing from her problems with men. The distortion that television first creates and then encourages in “Little Expressionless Animals” parallels the distortion of the convex mirror in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in that both the television and the mirror prevent the viewer both from ascertaining his or her true identity and from achieving a peaceful sense of self. Wallace’s choice to draw inspiration from John Ashbury’s poem is successful in its ultimate portrayal that humans lack the ability to completely asses and come to terms with their identities due to their reliance upon subjective, distortion-creating, man-made mechanisms such as convex mirrors and television.

Works Referenced

Ashbury, John, ed. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. N.p.: n.p., 1975. Poem Hunter. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror/>.

Depici, Aytemis. “Self Reflection in Convex Lens in ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ by David Foster Wallace.” Journal of History School. Journal of History School, Dec. 2013. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://www.johschool.com/Makaleler/555485327_11.%20aytemisdepci339.pdf>.

Finocchiaro, Peter. “What David Foster Wallace got wrong about irony: Our culture doesn’t have nearly enough of it.” Salon 27 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://www.salon.com/2014/04/27/what_david_foster_wallace_got_wrong_about_irony_our_culture_doesnt_have_nearly_enough_of_it/>.

Giles, Paul. The Global Remapping of American Literature. Princeton: Princeton U, 2010. Print.
– – -. Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace. N.p.: Hofstra U, 2007. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” ProQuest Information and Learning Company. Center for Book Culture, n.d. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf>.

– – -. Girl with Curious Hair. N.p.: Norton Paperback Fiction, 1989. Intexblogger.com. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://m.friendfeed-media.com/d8aef6c3b9514e089600afcf794360f62fb1be05>.

– – -. “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Interview by Larry McCaffery. Center for Book Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://samizdat.cc/shelf/documents/2005/03.07-dfwinterview/dfwinterview.pdf>.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”


“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” (Ashbery 524).


As Parmigianino did it, the left hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect

What it advertises.


In the deformation I simply substituted “right” to “left.” For it is not Parmigianino’s right hand in the forefront of the painting, but his left.  By claiming the hand to be the right hand, Ashbery employs several layers of perception and a metaphysical mode is implied. First, Parmigianino observes himself in the mirror. With his left arm against  the glass, and reflected directly in front of itself, the Painter begins his work. The painting locks Parmigianino’s image in a way that is perverse.  Looking at oneself in a mirror is an experience of the individual. By painting this image, a second observer is struck, much like how Vasari observed, “Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”” (524). Without knowledge of the painting being a mirror-study, the painting should appear as an ordinary portrait with the painted right hand opposite of the observer’s left, and left from the right.  But this is not actually the case.

Ashbery observes Parmaginino as appearing “glazed, embalmed,”  historically immortal within the painting. But that’s just it, he is inside the painting, trapped as an image in that convex mirror. That convex mirror that is perpetually ballooning outwards with Parmaginino’s true self. “That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept In suspension, unable to advance much farther Than your look as it intercepts the picture” (524).

As the second observer, Ashbery cannot see Parmigianino as Parmigianino saw himself.  “Words are only speculation,” the footnotes cite speculation as originating from the latin for mirror, it is important to also recognize speculation as a theory formed without true knowledge (525). Ashbery makes aware  the fact that his experience with the painting is relative, and thus limited. This Kantian notion is dually enforced by the following imagery of the hand, “One would like to stick one’s hand Out of the globe, but its dimension, What carries it, will not allow it. No doubt it is this, not the reflex To hide something, which makes the hand loom large As it retreats slightly” (525 ).  Illustrated here is the effort and failure of Parmigianino to transcend. Painting himself in a mirror study was an attempt to observe on different levels.

By asserting that the hand in the foreground of the painting was the right arm, Ashbury prompts us to recognize these layers of observation. By reading his poem, we are the third observer. No one observer knows the truth of the other, it is all speculation.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original Passage

“That is the tune but there are no words

The words are only speculation

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.

We see only postures of the dream.

Riders of the motion that swings the face

Into view under evening skies, with no

False disarray as proof of authenticity

But it is life englobed. ”

Remove the word “word”

“That is the tune but there are no

The  are only speculation

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.

We see only postures of the dream.

Riders of the motion that swings the face

Into view under evening skies, with no

False disarray as proof of authenticity

But it is life englobed. ”

When the word “word” is removed from the passage selected, a great deal of ambiguity arises. To me, the passage appeared to be a description of some sort, especially something related to writing. When “word” is removed, the passage could be describing an entirely different concept. Namely, painting/illustrating.

When unaltered, the passage appears to speak on the dichotomy of the concept of writing. The passage states that writing is “only speculation” and is unable to “find the meaning of music”.  Ashbery appears to be rueing the inability of words to always capture the truth and image/concept desired. However, the pure truth is not necessarily always desired. It is important to note that imaginative writing is a significant part of Ashbery’s style. The line “we see only postures of the dream” further creates an image of only a  broad, general outline being visible of a more sophisticated, detailed whole. Ashbery may be asserting that words alone are not precise enough to create a vivid image. The line, “with no False disarray as proof of authenticity” adds another interesting dimension opposite to the list of shortcomings of writings that has developed over this section. The notion that authentic/realistic things (anything really) are inherently flawed in some way is relatively common. Ashbery begins his support for writing with this line, as it can be inferred that the words do not have false disarray, but true disarray, an indicator of authenticity. Lastly, he adds that it is “life englobed”, and encompassing. In summary, Ashbery praises and denounces both the factual and fictional parts of writing, but appears to claim that the summation of each portion is what really matters.

The previously described characteristics can be applied to painting/illustrating, or other forms of art. When “words” is omitted, and the subject of the descriptions become ambiguous,  art becomes a fairly good fit. It can be imaginative (abstract) or factual (still life, portraits, etc.), and reflects many of the aforementioned qualities affixed to writing.

It is possible to speculate that Ashbery believed that art and writing were not so different, perhaps even that they were equivalents. By describing “words” with features that are also characteristic of art, Ashbery reflects on the similarities between the two: especially how the blend of fact and fiction truly encompasses their overall value.



Deformation of Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

And we realize this only at a point where they lapse

Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up

Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.

The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty

As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.

Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since

Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?

Something like living occurs, a movement

Out of the dream into its codification.



and we realize this only at a point where they lapse like a wave breaking on a rock giving up its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape the forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty as they forage in secret on our idea of distortion why be unhappy with this arrangement since dreams prolong us as they are absorbed something like living occurs a movement out of the dream into its codification

When a dream or vision is brought to be in reality, as when an artist attempts to execute his vision, he often finds that his attempt to match the form he has created in his mind results in something entirely unlike what he intended.  One of the most important aspects of this passage is the idea that a wave gives “up its shape in a gesture that expresses its shape” (528).  Similarly, a work of art or literature breaks away from the intended idea by imitating the form of the idea.  In this act of imitation, it is transformed into something entirely different.

This passage calls attention to the importance of the form, which also draws the reader’s attention to the structure of the poem.  The removal of punctuation and line breaks emphasizes the role of these choices within the original text.  Ashbery’s choice to split sentences between lines as he does may be likened to the text “breaking on a rock” as the waves do in this passage (528).  In the deformed version, the text continues without disruptions, but Ashbery’s breaks in the original create waves which signify the move from the dream or idea to the realization of the dream.   The distorted passage, without the pauses provided by punctuation, seems to read as a stream of consciousness, as it is a direct reflection of the artist’s intentions.  The original text, however, features a structure that was established during the act of creation.  Ashbery calls attention to these breaks, which is especially evident in the line break that immediately follows “lapse.”  He creates a physical lapse to draw attention to the lapse between the ideal and the actual.  Because the line breaks in the original text occur at points which seem to be unnatural, they almost read as if they were a mistranslation of an original piece of text, which further emphasizes this idea that an artist’s original vision and the resulting product are not identical.

A deformation of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original (Pg. 533): “As philosophers have often pointed out, at least

This thing, the mute, undivided present,

Has the justification of logic, which

In this instance isn’t a bad thing

Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling

Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result

Into a caricature of itself. This always

Happens, as in the game where

A whispered phrase passed around the room

Ends up as something completely different.”

Deformation: At least as philosophers have often pointed out

This undivided present, the mute thing,

Which has the justification of logic,

Isn’t a bad thing in this instance

If the way of telling wouldn’t be

Twisting the end result didn’t somehow intrude

This always into a caricature of itself

As in the game where happens

Passed around the room a whispered phrase

As something completely different ends up.


The first five verses in the original quote of John Ashbery’s long poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror refer to “this thing,” which seems to point to the repeating image of time throughout the story. The time is “mute” because at present, it can no longer speak of the past. The present is “undivided” because every moment in time was at once the present; the past was present to those in the generation before us. The time, or the present moment, “has the justification of logic,” because time is measured in math, in number of hours and minutes past midnight or noon, designated by the position of the sun and the moon in the sky. However, the author conveys the message that the “telling” of time at any present in this logical manner actually twists proportions in trying to define them. Time can be conceived as an indefinite continued progress of existence or the events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. In this way, the present time is not something that can ever be told because it is never solidified. Time is a never-ending cycle of presents. In my “deformation” of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, I have attempted to reverse every verse in its phrasing by switching what comes before the caesura (the comma or logical breaking point) with what comes after. The first five verses of the deformation mirror the message of the first five verses of the original quote despite the switch in phrasing. The message is almost more clear in the deformation than in the original: “At least as philosophers have often pointed out this undivided present, the mute thing, which has the justification of logic…”.

The last five verses of the original quote state that in trying to define present time on a line, it becomes “a caricature of itself,” or a picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. Then the author alludes to the game telephone in the last two verses, where someone starts with a word or a phrase and whispers it into the ear of another while that person then whispers it into the ear of another upon deciphering it. At the end of the game, normally played in a circle, the last person says what he has heard, and if all goes well (or terribly wrong), the word or phrase is not at all what it was at the beginning. The game is comical because everyone who plays laughs at what the word or phrase has become, as it is often very strange. Thus present time, happening too in a circle, becomes something that it once was not and the word “caricature” represents the comedy of this affair and others like it.

John Ashbery’s poem is an ode to the painting by the Italian Mannerist artist Parmigianino. Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its exaggerated and artificial qualities. In Parmigianino’s painting, the hand of the man in the convex mirror appears much larger than the head. To Ashbery, this signifies that the artist of work does not intend his result; rather he is surprised by it because its present state doesn’t mirror what he had planned in the time of which he began. Hence, as Ashbery showed the caricature of the idea of present time, Parmiganio’s painting became a literal caricature instead of a self-portrait. The last five verses of my deformation shown in bold become completely illogical, for example, “As in the game where happens passed around the room a whispered phrase as something completely different ends up.” While it could be said that the deformation of these last five verses is not at all what the author intended in his original quote, the discombobulated art of them (“the end result”) actually conveys Ashbery’s overall message: the work becomes “a caricature of itself,” in trying to repeat itself. His message thus translates from the idea of present time to the intentions of an artist (Parmigianino) to the intentions of an author (Ashbery and myself) and the result is a kind of beauty.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery

Original text:

“The whole is stable within

Instability, a globe like ours, resting

On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball

Secure on its jet of water” (526)


Deformed Text:

Within instability, the whole is stable.

One a pedestal of vacuum, a globe like ours rests.

On its jet of water, a ping-pong ball is secure.


In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” John Ashbery writes about Parmigianino’s self-portrait of his reflection. It is conventional to depict oneself in a more realistic manner, but Parmigianino chose to fashion himself a self-portrait true to the nature of a convex mirror; the image is distorted, particularly his hand at the forefront of the image. Parmigianino relies on a physical representation of himself to draw his self-portrait, just as the reflection itself relies on him for its existence. By definition, a reflection is merely a representation of a real object; its meaning is derived from the physical, though it is itself just a likeness.

By deforming this passage of the poem, the concept of dependence is emphasized by restructuring the sentences to each follow an appositive. Appositives are set off from but add meaning to the sentence. For example, Ashbery states that a globe like ours rests on a pedestal of a vacuum. The globe relies on the pedestal to hold it up. Similarly, a ping-pong ball is secure on a jet of water. By setting what is being depended on apart from the rest of the sentence, the reliant nature of the relationships is emphasized. This sentence format illustrates the importance of having a firm base from which to build; however, Ashbery uses dependent relationships that are weak in nature. When one considers the fact that the earth exists with a vacuum, essentially floating in nothingness, the relationship seems a bit more precarious than the deformation would suggest. The appositive, however, is meaningless without the rest of the sentence, just as the earth cannot continue to exist without that which holds it in its place.

Ashbery further outlines the nature of dependence by describing the significance of Parmigianino’s reflection in the mirror. Ashbery depicts Parmigianino’s reflection as the embodiment of his soul, which is a “captive” in Parmigianino’s body as well as in the mirror (524).  The soul is “unable to advance much farther than your look as it intercepts the picture” (524). It is trapped within the confines of the mirror, as well as within Parmigianino himself. Though contained, the soul is able to thrive as long as it has a body to give it life. Containment can be necessary to maintain an entity, such as a mirror reflection, which only exists when the mirror allows it to do so.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original text:

“The words are speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word from time…”

Deformed text:


Le temps

The artistic process is often winding, taking turns in ways even the artist could never imagine. Many a time an artist’s finished product looks nothing like his or her original vision. Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” explores the ways in which distortion, an element he sees in the painting, relates to the human identity. Just as artists explore the nuances of an idea throughout the creation process, so humans delve in and out of various understandings of life throughout their existences. The poem takes the reader on a journey of exploratory reflection over the self-portrait in the convex mirror, ultimately presenting the possibility that distortion is a subjective quality that human’s have no way of verifying due to their own constant, though often unintentional, use of distortion.

The deformation I chose to create focused on an early section of the poem. Early on, Ashbury attempts to describe the painting he is viewing. The reader sees Ashbury’s ideas develop throughout the poem. I chose to deconstruct two places where Ashbury’s language choices evolve. The first occurrence is when Ashbury is attempting to describe the nonexistent “words”. Beginning with “speculation”, Ashbury’s train of thought moves to the Latin word “speculum”, and, from there, “mirror”. Thus Ashbury’s original thought, “words”, changes to “mirror”. By exhibiting his process, Ashbury is demonstrating the art of distortion. Just as the convex mirror distorts the image of the Parmigianino, so Ashbury’s words distort his poetry’s meaning. The second place in which Ashbury’s words evolve is when he describes the weather. While initially describing the mirror as a gauge of weather, he quickly digresses to the French “le temps”. “Le temps” then changes to “time”. In this way, Ashbury transitions the mirror from a gauge of weather to a gauge of time, imitating his transition previous from “words” to “mirror”.

Ashbury’s own transitions exhibit how distortion progresses. Distortion by definition perverts something, but Ashbury asserts that distortion comes about when humans attempt to retell something, as when Parmigianino draws his self-portrait and Ashbury reflects on that self-portrait. Ashbury writes, “Or would it be, if the way of telling/Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result/Into a caricature of itself” (533). Ashbury asserts that man’s way of “telling” distorts that which he is attempting to tell. Given this assertion, man’s idea of distortion as an action must itself be distorted. By Ashbury’s complex reasoning, humans have no way of determining the distorted from the undistorted because humans distort everything. Through complex comparisons and long, winding descriptions, Ashbury demonstrates how distortion evolves, while simultaneously questioning humans’ ability to subjectively judge due to humans’ own consistent, though often inadvertent, use of distortion.

(Ironically, by deforming and analyzing the text, I am committing the same distortions that Ashbury commits when he writes of the self-portrait in the convex mirror, and that Parmigianino commits when he paints his own portrait.)

Introduction to John Ashbery

John Ashbery - http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ashbery.php


 John Ashbery is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential poets of the 20th century. His unique means of defying literary norms, exhibited through his poems’ bold structuring and experimental bent, challenge readers to reflect upon the act of writing itself.

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York on July 28, 1927. According to an article in Slate, Ashbery wrote his first poem at age eight: “The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds / These are the fairies’ camping grounds” – a testament to the standardization he would later eschew. As an adolescent, he aspired to be a painter, taking classes for four years at age eleven (Wikipedia). He attended the all-boys Deerfield Academy and graduated from Harvard University in the class of 1949. His education was continued as he earned his Master of Arts from Columbia in 1951, then moving on to study in France under a Fulbright scholarship (520).

Ashbery’s work draws parallel with his passion for art. Ashbery contributed to numerous art journals throughout his career through coverage of exhibitions and composing pieces of criticism. He worked as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune’s European Edition and covered shows for Arts International and Art News. By 1965, Ashbery had become the executive editor of Art News, a position he retained until 1972 (520). He has been associated with the “New York school” of poets, a collective of creative writers that included Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch (520). The informal school of the 1950s and 1960s consisted of a grouping of artists in the city practicing composition in different forms, including painting, dancing, and music (Wikipedia). The poets were largely inspired by movements such as Surrealism and certain modern art movements, such as the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. They worked to adapt styles of works such as the action paintings of Jackson Pollock to inspire their freeform literary tactics, writing in “an immediate and spontaneous manner” (520, Wikipedia). However, in an interview published in the Winter 1983 issue of The Paris Review, Ashbery distanced himself from the group by stating that “‘This label was foisted upon us by a man named John Bernard Meyers, who ran the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and published some pamphlets of our poems’”; he also points out that he was living in France at the time of the School. He strikes a casual connection amongst the members, stating, “We were a bunch of poets who happened to know each other; we would get together and read our poems to each other and sometimes we would write collaborations”.

Ashbery’s style is controversial yet fresh, but he has had many imitators over the years. His influences include the American Romantic tradition (Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens), the aforementioned New York School, and various French surrealist writers, for whom Ashbery served as “critic and translator” (Poetry Foundation). His first book was Some Trees, published in 1956. It achieved notoriety by the award of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. According to the Poetry Foundation website, W.H. Auden (a poet whom Ashbery greatly lauded and admired) served as judge to the competition; but Auden “famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript”. His most famous works include the radically experimental The Tennis Court Oath (from the Paris years in 1962), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), “Houseboat Days” (1977), and the book-length Flow Chart (1991) (520). Later works have reflected upon themes of mortality, as demonstrated by collections such as Girls on the Run (1999), Where Shall I Wander? (2005), and A Worldly Country (2007) (Poetry Foundation).

An incredible number of awards have been bestowed upon Ashbery for his pioneering work. He has received multiple particularly prestigious American prizes, including for his poetry collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the namesake poem of which we are examining. The book garnered the celebrated Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award (Poets.org). He has further been acknowledged through the Brusselian Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poésie (for which he was the first English-language poet to win), as well a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant (Poets.org).

Ashbery continually places a bold ultimatum before the reader, challenging them to toss aside previous presumptuous notions of poetry in favor of exploring the spontaneous experience of a work, setting him outside of the typical boundaries of language. He has been quoted as stating that his aim with his work is “‘to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about’” (Poetry Foundation; Slate Magazine). This results in a style described by the Poetry Foundation as “self-reflexive, multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, full of both pop culture and high allusion”; and yet, ultimately, Ashbery states, “My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”


I have given some cursory citations to the information for referential purposes. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the following pages:


I only had a chance to read a section of it, but this is a 1983 interview with Ashbery published in The Paris Review that seems really neat.