Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Actually, I did finish this book, but I feel justified in adding it to the "abandoned" shelf as I don't think I'll ever feel the need to try Ashbery again. I don't regret reading this book -- if that's even the right verb to describe the experience -- or indeed, any of my goes at Ashbery. I do think that this will be my last. The fault, if it is one, is clearly mine, as John Ashbery recently became the first living poet included in the Library of America. No small thing, that. (Ashbery is also the favorite of my dear friend, a poet himself, for whose sake I've tried Ashbery's poetry, despite my friend's warnings that I would not like it, many times before. My friend was right of course. Nothing. may I add, in this most recent attempt has disproved, so far as I'm concerned, either my friend' warning or his admiration of Ashbery. I trust he simply knows better than I, bless him. Not the first instance nor likely to be the last in our long friendship.)
I only just begin to understand a little of what others find either interesting or admirable in these poems, though, again, that they are poems at all is something I have come to simply accept as a given. There are pretty phrases, indeed pretty phrases and pretty conceits of all sorts, and by the bushel basket, even in a book as slim as this, but arranged, if that's the word, to little if any point that I can find, even musically. (One of conundrums for me, saying these things aloud was finding nowhere in particular to breath.) For the most part, in an apt phrase of Maureen N. McLane's, even the "opportunities for derangement," presented by Ashbery's refractories ultimately seem to me rather less than more interesting the longer meditated, at least by me.
And then there's the near-narrative of that last, long title piece, and there's where I came to rest for some time. Straight through, then again, slowly, and then aloud, and always, almost... something about art, was it? Indeed, something may well have been said, though what it was seemed to matter less with each reading, even as the piece itself seemed to resolve into increasingly obvious, if no more coherent prose with every pass.
I also read a nice long interview with the poet, reprinted online from an issue of the Paris Review. The piece was from 2009, I think? Anyway it was recent enough. In it, the poet sounded rather sweetly dotty, rather like an increasingly vague, if rather dear old auntie, every bit as detached from anything like feeling or meaning as his poems. The interview in fact reminded me of nothing so much as Cheshire-cat-smile, but I now think about it, that seems wrong, as it suggests something intentional, even if that's only confusion, or a joke. I still find the idea of art too fine for sense offensive; not so much irrational as anti-rational, not mysticism but mystification, and not that himself could be made to say any such thing, or anything at all as clear as that -- very much against his principles, evidently, lowering himself to mere coherence, even in conversation. But why think anything as mean as that when, ultimately, this all matters to me as a reader hardly at all? It seems likelier to me now, if I could now be bothered to work up the required steam, that Ashbery aesthetic would be better explained by some more clinical diagnosis, something in the way of autism, but then I'm hardly qualified or still interested enough to say any such thing.
Still, it's a bit sad conceding, finally, my complete failure to see what my friend sees, or anything much at all in this, according to those that should know, America's greatest living poet. For me, it seems, thick as dishes, as my grandma used to say -- and here I mean either me or the poems, and does it really matter which?
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