The following essay by NBCC board member and Balakian award winner Maureen N. McLane on John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” winner of the first NBCC Award in Poetry in 1975, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.
More than thirty years have passed since Ashbery published this book , the one that secured his status as perhaps the major American poet of the second half of the twentieth-century, turning him into that very queer thing, a perpetually evanescing monument. It is almost impossible to have any perspective on Ashbery—who is often lauded and decried with equally unreflective fervor by partisans and loathers, respectively. The difficulty of getting a perspective on anything at all is of course one of Ashbery’s great subjects, as his title poem suggests: the rules for framing the view determine the view, the shape of the convex mirror shaping what’s seen, whether it’s the self in view, the world, or that perpetually hazy interzone between them.
To read “Self-Portrait” (the book) now is to be astounded, still and again, by its subtle, titanic power and its massive and stunningly realized ambition. Never has so much authority been brought to bear on such unauthoritative themes—uncertainty, vagueness, the tentative, the barely perceptible, the hardly there. This is negative capability and then some, as famously proposed by Keats: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Ashbery is one of the great poets of vanishings, of conditional presents: “Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted.” One could resolve this recurrent, complex stance into an epistemological condition: a pervasive skepticism, say; or into an ontological predicament, our being never accessible to us in the flux of becoming. Or we might see in his serial voyages a characteristically American openness inflected by a French panache and love of the pop ludic. Ashbery’s poetics seem to me an affair both of sensibility and also implicitly of ethics, since his poems are always exploring the proximities and distances between people, people and thoughts, landscape, history, whatever passes through us and makes us. His poems are ways of behaving—amusing, solicitous, ruminative, considerate, taking care as they go, refusing to call attention to what I feel we should call their great grace.
These are potentially soppy terms (“grace,” etc), terms his poems would deflate with bursts of slang, sly twists of thought, shifts in pronoun, turns of phrase and changes of topic, yet everywhere his omnivorous openhanded attentiveness opens out onto this field of a chastened grace. The everyday flowers into melancholy fun, social transformations sounded out in surprising, tender demotic pivots. Consider “Mixed Feelings:”
A pleasant smell of frying sausages
Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.
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?
What are your hobbies, girls? Aw nerts,
One of them might say, this guy’s too much for me.
Throughout the volume we encounter the famous Ashberian modulations of thought and language, perhaps none more immediately arresting than the opening of “Poem in Three Parts:”
“Once I let a guy blow me.
I kind of backed away from the experience.
Now years later, I think of it
Without emotion. There has been no desire to repeat,
No hang-ups either. Probably if the circumstances were right
It could happen again, but I don’t know,
I just have other things to think about,
More important things. Who goes to bed with what
Is unimportant. Feelings are important.
Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life
Like the wind, like tumbling clouds
In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.”
Ashbery is still under-recognized as a great poet of the idea of America and of the American citizenry—what else to make of the following:
“The One Thing That Can Save America”
Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place names central?
Are place names central? With a town called Hope giving us a president; cities called Republic; New York State (for example) charted with old Native American names alongside classical names: Rome, Ithaca, Syracuse, Troy. Is anything central in this morphing, digressive, dispersing, imploding republic?
Ashbery is more a questioner and a wonderer than an announcer, the delicacy of his often comic musings notable especially when he turns to questions of identity, sexuality, erotics, death:
From “Tenth Symphony”:
You’ve never told me about a lot of things:
Why you love me, why we love you, and just exactly,
What sex is. When people speak of it
As happens increasingly, are they always
Referring to the kind where sexual organs are brought in-
Diffident, vague, hard to imagine as they are to a blind person?
From “Poem in Three Parts”:
Weeds like skyscrapers against the blue vault of heaven:
Where is it to end? What is this? Who are these people?
Am I myself, or a talking tree?
If “Self-Portrait” is perhaps Ashbery’s most famous single poem—from the bravura opening “As Parmagianino did it,” to its ghostly transcendent cadence in “whispers out of time”—“Grand Galop” makes a strong claim for equal centrality, its opening meditation paving the way for the reception of other major poetic work such as Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.” A whole epoch of tone and sensibility is here encompassed:
From “Grand Galop”:
All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air . . .
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce
and tomato salad,
Jello, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
Drops from an air conditioner
On those who pass underneath. It’s one of the sights of our town.
Puaagh. Vomit. Puaaaaagh. More vomit. One who comes
Walking dog on leash is distant to say how all this
Changes the minute to an hour, the hour
To the times of day, days to months, those easy-to-grasp
And the months to seasons, which are far other, foreign
To our concept of time.
Perhaps “Self-Portrait” (the book) caused such a deserved sensation—its ripples and currents of influence still making themselves felt—because it offered something the poet invoked in his title poem: “life englobed.” One can say of Ashbery what he wrote of Parmagianino, that
. . . 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.
—From “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
In the end:
You and I and the dog
Are here, this is what matters for now.
—“Voyage in the Blue”