Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
John Ashbery studied this picture and wrote his thoughts into a poetic meditation on art and life as an explorer of human experience in the the world. The poem is easily as fascinating as the picture. It is of more than a thousand words and equal to the picture as a work of art.
The poem is long and of a piece so much that pulling a section out seems like pulling a piece out of the painting, which also has that feel of a finely crafted whole without pieces. There is one section that stuck to me more than the rest as if the poet was speaking clearly, some of the muddled feelings and doubts I have about living and creating art.
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. Parmigianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way.
This section in the middle of the poem says as well as I could how I feel about the process of creation whether it is just getting through a day or creating art, but in pulling it out I have also lessened its impact, because it is dovetailed nicely and built into the structure of the poem. It is more powerful in the poem than out. But, you can judge for yourself here.