On the cover of this pocket-sized edition of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the poet stands in a doorway. He wears the somehow simultaneously ill-advised and completely stylish ensemble of a half-unbuttoned patterned shirt and tight beltless pants. Looking closer, the doorway seems to open not to a room or to the outside but to a closet: on a shelf behind him there is a pot or urn, and the flatness of the photograph makes it seem a bit as if he is wearing it on his head, like a bizarre hat. He is looking straight out of the front of the book, with a direct, slightly furrowed expression. He is about to smile beneath his full mustache. Something strange is just about to happen.
When I bought this copy of Self-Portrait, in 1993, I had just begun a doctoral program at UC Berkeley. Full of a desire, secret to everyone including myself, to live a creative life, I was skeptical about, but also attracted to, poetry. Now, holding this same book in my hand, I remember that time, and how Ashbery’s poems at first didn’t seem to make any sense, or go anywhere, or do anything. I felt angry reading them, as if I were in the presence of a giant literary hoax that I had the choice either to sanction or to condemn. The situation felt profoundly ethical to me. The poems offended my sense of what poetry, and art, should do. Read More