Monday, July 16, 2007

Ashbery: Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

One of my undergraduate professors (a stately gentleman who had been to Harvard in the 50’s, was steeped in the beauty of the classics and older criticism and believed strongly in the unity of personal experience -- how what surrounds us helps to develop and channel the poetic energies) once facetiously recited to me an Ashbery poem of his own making. I don’t quite remember what the poem was, but that was his point -- Ashbery is an experience, an ethos, but the exact words and wordings don’t matter. (The poem was something like : beach / sand and waves / I had a peach for breakfast / the sun ....) I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find that Ashbery has a keen sense for how to disintegrate words while also pulling them together to shore up his verse. While Ashbery does throw in a number of chaotic and contradictory elements, but (at least in the title poem) combines and coalesces them -- his point seems to be to break down an idea into constituent parts. The idea is not the portrait, but what the portrait represents. Then he can rebuild away from this fallen foundation. Here's the STUDY GUIDE.

Questions, etc
  • To what extent do Ashbery's poems represent a larger, coherent whole? I am constantly searching for a poet's center. In the Middle Ages, even if a poet or theologian departs from a canonical view, I still know the general tenure of the debate. In reading contemporary poetry, I think I sometimes invent or overread a unified conclusion. Thoughts on which(es) Ashbery pursues?
  • In a mirror, the object and the viewer are the same. Thus, in using this metaphor for the poem, where does this lead (& leave) the reader? On one level the reader is Ashbery himself, but what of the public nature of both the art and the poem? Does this demand that others view the soul as it is perceived and filtered through the interior self effectively creating a circle that the reader is only partially involved in? And which the reader may only be an observer for? Ashbery touches on this when he contemplates a person viewing the original portrait -- a viewer who becomes disassociated from himself as he first perceives the mirror image as himself, and then as an Othered Self. What are the implications for reading/interpreting outside of this image and through it?
  • Some blogs I've been reading lately are delving into the nature of time and representation and history and all sorts of fascinating things. Today while reading Old English in New York's reading of another blogger's post I found some of her quotes and observations to be interesting in light of Ashbery and Browning -- i.e. what authors communicate in using ekphrasis, why this technique strikes us particularly through the lens of poetry and what it means. I by no means have answers or even quite questions, but a direction of thought I'm interested in pursuing. So feel free to debate and critique it with me!
    I was caught by his words -- particularly There was a world once, all of these objects say to us, in which so much had not always already happened. In which the irrevocable, that irreversible flow chart, had not already occurred, with all the consequences that can never be undone. He catches here part of the difficulty in deciphering the messages (intended or not) bequeathed to us by the past. There is a way in which these representations are never simply objects -- they become, in their own right, the sign of a world already past. Yet, caught momentarily in a picture or a film -- those of us who live always already after glimpse a moment where things still could have gone differently, where the world as we know it was still in the process of becoming. A temporal oddness asserts itself (at least, it does in my mind, which is by no means representative!): the intuition of a world in which our present becomings will have already passed. The knowledge that we're not immune to the effects of time.
    What I fnd most striking here is the twist it places on ekphrasis -- no longer merely a technique that describes the impact of a painting on its audience, but now becomes transformed into a form of history and challenge to time -- and art -- itself. We can also compare this to Auden's use of ekphrasis in Musee des Beaux Arts and The Shield of Achilles -- the latter, of course, is ironic, and would connect the most cleary to Ashbery's use of the technique to undercut and undermine the universiality of art. Thom notes that the present is complicated as it consists of what has immediately passed and what is just about to happen; he points to Ashbery's use of the Waterwheel to illustrate this concept.
  • I've yet to find time to finish the rest of the book, but am wondering what relation the title of the book, the title poem and the other poems have to each other?!

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