John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Self-Portrait in a Convex MirrorSelf-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment but our judgement also, since we subject to our intellectual consideration (i) the content of art, and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of both to one another. The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction.
—G. F. W. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (trans. Bosanquet)

Here are poems for the end of history; here is the philosophy of art. Luckily, we don’t even have to read Hegel to know how we arrived at this terminus. John Ashbery was an art critic: we can just line the paintings up from David to Delacroix to Monet to Picasso to Pollock to see what happened. Once perspective, which secured an objective viewpoint to hold phenomena together, was removed, we were left with subjectivity, what things looked like to the artist; but if only the artist’s subjectivity remains to organize the painting, then there is no need for things at all. The painting’s sole content therefore is—and, in retrospect, perhaps always was—an allegory of its own procedure as mental processes’ formal corollary. Which is what Hegel said, more or less: history, in this case art history, is the progressive realization of self-consciousness. Ashbery knows it. In “Ode to Bill,” his speaker walks out into nature, has a quasi-Romantic “vision” of a horse, and then ejects it with the Hegelian assurance, “Him too we can sacrifice / To the end progress, for we must, we must be moving on.” Or this, from “On Autumn Lake”:

Turns out you didn’t need all that training
To do art—that it was even better not to have it. Look at
The Impressionists—some of ’em had it, too, but preferred to forget it
In vast composed canvases by turns riotous
And indigent in color, from which only the notion of space is lacking.

This happened in poetry, too, even bypassing the French avant-garde in favor of the Anglo-Americans, from Pope to Keats to Whitman to Stevens and then, in culmination, to Ashbery. First form leaches away—Pope’s couplets and Keats’s stanzas giving way to Whitman’s yawp—and then even the fiction of a fiction, from Pope’s narratives to Whitman’s catalogues to Stevens’s philosophical meditations to Ashbery’s inability even quite to sustain a meditation without interrupting himself, per Hamlet, with “words, words, words.”

What is appealing about Ashbery, though, is that he is not altogether Gertrude Stein, that first of the postmoderns (if Parmigianino wasn’t the first—more of that later). He has his moments—for example, “These khaki undershorts hung out on lines, / The wind billowing among them, are we never to make a statement?” or, “Ask a hog what is happening. Go on. Ask him”—but his texts do not exactly dissolve into into the free play of signifiers. At the macro level of form, the sonorities of the poem remain: the shell of lyric personality, of emotion recollected in tranquility, of the oracular utterance. As in Pollock, if you squint you might see an outline of composition. Or more—genuine, indelible truth.

You could get this collection’s very first line tattooed up your arm or chiseled on your headstone or inscribed on some portico: “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.” “I did too!” one cries inwardly, happy to have found someone who understands. Then one reads the next lines: “Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight / Filters down…” Where? And what do you mean “as”?—are you or aren’t you? The collection mostly works this way. While the cycle of poems traverses the whole seasonal round—as Susan Stewart points out—overall it’s like walking in winter on intermittently cleared sidewalks. We slide over surfaces of inscrutable private reference and put a foot through a fluffy mass of willful folly (scholars appear to have explained much of this, but we have the right to read poetry without asking their help or permission)—and then suddenly the solid ground of wisdom.

Could the wisdom be a postmodern trick—have we been coaxed by the hoaxer into actually, naïvely believing something? I doubt it. Other readers took this landmark 1975 collection, often cited as its author’s masterpiece, seriously enough: it won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award that year. Ashbery contends, in less mawkish words than I’m about to use, that whatever feels real in art, be it ever so much a discourse or simulacra or representation, is real:

…the “it was all a dream”
Syndrome, though the “all” tells tersely
Enough how it wasn’t. Its existence
Was real, though troubled…

Still, we will be scolded by sophisticates if we try to island-hop through the collection from poignant truth to poignant truth. The other material is there to remind us that truth is constructed, discursive, and usually elsewhere: this is “postmodern poetry,” or so it says in the anthologies and on syllabi. Some lines from this book seem written to appear as illustrations of postmodern theory:

All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.

Is anything central?

[A] book on Sweden contains only the pages of that book.

The canons are falling
One by one…

And if postmodernism is an especially academic concern, one passage even seems to me, in its referential branching-out, to be an unequalled description of being in graduate school:

I not only have my own history to worry about
But am forced to fret over insufficient details related to large
Unfinished concepts that can never bring themselves to the point
Of being, with or without my help, if any were forthcoming.

Anthologies and syllabi are necessary in their oversimplifications—we have to put everything somewhere or else we’ll be in squalor—but all the same this is Romantic poetry, too, or why else could Hegel see to the end of time from Romanticism’s vantage? And it is Renaissance poetry, because there, with the death of God and the liberation-representation of the subject, the whole problem of truth begins, or else how could Hegel have found the Romantic “self-sufficiency of character” in Shakespeare? And what was the Renaissance renascent of again if not an earlier pluralist age?—this might even be ancient Greek poetry, like Archilochus, who threw away his shield to write about himself. And so, as Ashbery would say—he always very amusingly provides logical transitions where there is no clear logic but rather a rapid change of subject—more of this later.

One poem I think I understand in its entirety—they are few and far between—is “Scheherazade,” a title that, like many in the collection, refer not only to its referent but to a musical composition, reference always being mediated and the condition of music moreover being that of having no limit to reference. This poem is about stories, and about what is left of our experience, both of literature and of life, when faith in narrative withdraws:

Some stories survived the dynasty of the builders
But their echo was itself locked in, became
Anticipation that was only memory after all,
For the possibilities are limited. It is seen
At the end that the kind and good are rewarded,
That the unjust one is doomed to burn forever
Around his error, sadder and wiser anyway.
Between these extremes the others muddle through
Like us, uncertain but wearing artlessly
Their function of minor characters who must
Be kept in mind. It is we who make this
Jungle and call it space, naming each root,
Each serpent, for the sound of the name
As it clinks dully against our pleasure,
Indifference that is pleasure.

In other words—not that we can honestly “in other words” something this oblique—with the grand narrators gone and the grand narratives done, with the canons fallen one by one, we are left as muddling and supporting players who moreover know that whatever order we find in our chaotic world we have placed there ourselves. The rest of the poem leading up to these climactic lines is more mysterious, like a set of random lines lifted from a long novel. “It is all invitation,” is one of these lines, and so is Ashbery’s poetry. In another poem, he writes of “the teasing outline / Of where we would be if we were here,” an outline his verse sketches; but he also frets that his poetry might only “[a]dd to the already all-but-illegible scrub forest of graffiti on the shithouse wall.”

I am ungenerously reminded of Anatole Broyard’s remark about another iconically elliptical ’70s book, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, that you can’t make a meal of condiments; but then Ashbery is not a flashy nihilist (and neither is Adler). He derides

those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery

and earnestly wonders when and where we contracted the postmodern condition. One poem, “Forties Flick,” suggests a decade and a medium, but I like “Mixed Feelings,” which names the same decade, even better; the most straightforward poem in the collection, it finds the speaker looking over breakfast at

an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.

He concedes they are “creatures…[o]f [his] imagination,” but notes their imagination too:

How to explain to these girls, if indeed that’s what they are,
These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas
About the vast change that’s taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it? And yet
They somehow look as if they knew…

So modern warfare (the bomber), modern media (photography), and the emancipation of previously suppressed groups (women) brought us to the point of the canon’s fall. Given that this is a mixed bag of developments, no wonder the poet has mixed feelings. The politics of the change aren’t clear either, as he suggests in another poem:

The new conservatism is
Sitting down beside you.


How about a new kind of hermetic conservatism
And suffering withdrawal symptoms of same?

The old hermetic conservatism was modernism, with its seemingly chaotic surfaces held together by a hidden mythic substructure; Ashbery’s “new conservatism” is the chaos without the order, but with the hints of the order left in all the same, the maddening sensation that underlying significance might still be found somewhere, which “invitation” is why it’s conservative, since a radical would just enjoy the egalitarian shambles:

But the real story, the one
They tell us we should probably never know
Drifts back in bits and pieces

The collection’s final and title piece, one of the most celebrated of American long poems, troubles any easy historical narrative, any attempt to blame the 20th century for the fact that we can’t write poems or paint pictures anymore, not really. It takes its title from a 1524 self-portrait by the Mannerist painter Parmigianino, and is a long “Grecian Urn”-like meditation on the significance of this art object. “It is the first mirror portrait,” we are told parenthetically, suggesting that the mirror preceded photography in making us too aware of ourselves as represented to represent anything any longer with any confidence (hence the creation of “a society specifically / Organized as a demonstration of itself”); and I’m not an art historian, but isn’t Mannerism the decadence, or the “postmodernism,” of the Renaissance, just as Nietzsche might have claimed that everything after Socrates and Euripides was the “postmodernism” of Greece? Ashbery, like Keats, allows the object to tease him out of thought:

The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
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.

We artists, and then everybody along with us, locked ourselves in the mirror of representation. Now our souls can’t escape and were perhaps made for this prison-house anyway. Since words are mirrors and moreover predate both mirrors and photography, “postmodernism” so-called turns out to have been always already the human condition. Ashbery offers pity as one palliative. The other is the continued attempt to “find the meaning of the music,” however it may recede, deeper and deeper into a history that turns out less to have ended than not even to have begun.

One question, then, remains for this distinguished and often very brilliant poet: if our problems aren’t so different from those our precursors confronted, is it really decent or dignified of us to make so much less sense than they do?