John Ashbery Changed My Life

I’ve listened to his recording of an 11-page poem well over 1,000 times. Here’s why.

Almost exactly a month before poet John Ashbery died, the New Yorker’s Louis Menand published an essay called “Can Poetry Change Your Life?” I didn’t get past the title before I answered yes, out loud, in the silence of my studio. Can poetry change your life? Maybe. I don’t know you. But John Ashbery changed mine.

I was in the third year of my Ph.D. when I encountered John Ashbery. I’d tried to avoid him; two years earlier he had given a reading in the town where I went to school, but although the MFA program buzzed with news of his coming visit, I’d never heard of him and I didn’t go. In fact, I was busy trying to avoid 20th century poetry entirely; when I was compiling the list of significant works I would master for my oral exams, I’d bristled at the idea that poetry had to be included. I liked narrative, the art of telling, the skill of designing the slow slide into what happened. Poetry was full of mirror-games; it multiplied the stakes and possibilities of language dizzyingly, discarding the chains of cause and effect that narrative secured and untethering words from their posts of dutiful explanation. In poetry I found no anchor, no explanation, nothing firm to onto which I could grasp and no anchor tying it down to anything stable. I didn’t have the patience or the interest in developing sea-legs to stand on a ship with such a pitching keel.

But poetry was determined to change my life. My faculty advisor disapproved of my poem-free list and unceremoniously dumped heaps of poetry back on, notably “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” an epic eleven-page poem by John Ashbery.

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Pursuing a graduate degree is an odd combination of delusional self-confidence — you have to be delusional to believe that the contents of your thought are worth seven years of single-minded pursuit at the expense of both a personal life and a research university’s funding — and cowering self-doubt. Ashbery’s work has a way of exposing the laughable qualities of both. In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” there is the sense that the artist, whose round mirror organizes everything, is desperate to bring everything into arrangement, order, full comprehension — and loses control in the attempt.

Parmigianino’s self-portrait

Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait” takes as its object a painting, composed by the late Renaissance Francesco Mazolla. As the poem describes, Parmigianino, as Francesco Mazolla is familiarly known, contrives to paint himself, capturing his own reflection in a convex mirror (the type, Ashbery observes, commonly used by barbers). Parmigianino’s technique was new. The idea of a self-reflection as the subject of art was itself a novelty of the time. Parmigianino doubles the convexity of the reflection he finds in the barber’s mirror by painting the resulting self-image on a sphere of wood, divided in half so that the portrait itself juts out. As a result, the figure rendered in the portrait Parmigianino left of himself bulges out of the frame, only to be pulled back into the portrait by its shape, its convexity, its dimensions. Ashbery doubles the convexity once more. Parmigianino’s portrait is a reflection of his reflection: the poem is a reflection once more removed. In this series of infinite regressions, Ashbery shares the restraint of Parmigianino’s frame. You feel him, like Parmigianino, wondering at the constraint and whether there is a way out of it. The combination of the portrait’s convexity, the painter’s circumscription, and the reproducing levels of self-reflection, captivates Ashbery. In the portrait, Ashbery sees the painter’s attempt to capture the entirety of the subject and all that surrounds him. He also sees the immanent distortions of that self-reflexivity: the artist, and the hand of the artist in the act of creation, loom too large for the frame.

Nothing is ever complete, nothing ever fully ordered, in an Ashbery poem. The poet heaps image upon image, layers voice upon voice, seeking to contain, it seems, everything in the form. It includes the utterances of others; their sounds sneak in from outside the poem’s frame to inhabit the space within it so that the poem is humming with them, creating a dense chatter that swells into a cacophony of reflections until nothing remains that is surely the poem’s own substance. These background voices utter light and dark speech that becomes indistinguishable from that of the speaker, so that this sense of otherness is only barely constrained by the artist’s smooth self-image floating on the surface. The poem strains under the weight of the attempt to contain everything beneath the surface, the content straining the outer limits of the poem’s form. More keeps getting included, Ashbery wrote — perhaps about what he was writing — without adding to the sum. Ashbery’s poems are driven by a certain degree of amusement at expectation that one does, finally, arrive at the sum. He was interested in the more, in how much of the weight of otherness the form of the poem could bear, and what it couldn’t. For Ashbery, it was what is outside the portrait that mattered.

My eyes would start to glaze over whenever I picked up the slim volume that bore the image of Parmigianino reflected on its cover (or rather, the convex reflection of that image, as Ashbery persistently pointed out). So, determined to master Ashbery, I went off of the page, and found a recording of him reading “Self Portrait.” Ashbery’s self-recording seemed to recapitulate the content of the work: a self-portrait of the poem itself in the convex mirror of sound.

The recording is in his flat, decidedly un-musical, disinterested voice. The pitch of his tone never lowers or rises, and the poem, read in entirety, spans three recorded segments and about fifty minutes of listening time. I listened to it the first five or ten times out of a sense of duty, as a means to the ends of mastery, which at that point in my mind meant the ability to say one or two witty and new things about the poem if asked about it during the exam.

And then I listened to it a hundred more times. And then a hundred times again. Sometimes, I would get to the end of the poem, and as Ashbery’s voice intoned the final few lines, whispers, out of time, I would immediately start the poem from the beginning, listening to it endlessly so that the repetition would almost seem to ignore the poem’s own caution that its whispers were out of time, existing only in cold pockets of remembrance. They existed in streams of endless words, flowing through my ears endlessly, a reflection with no terminus.

I listened to it the first five or ten times out of a sense of duty. And then I listened to it a hundred more times. And then a hundred times again.

I live in Los Angeles, and the gift that the city has given me is a love — maybe a compulsion — for traversing the terrain of its mountain ranges. I take pleasure and delight at the sun cresting over the hills and lighting up the sky into pastels in the summer, neons right out of a Lisa Frank illustration of magentas and tennis-ball yellow in the winter. The quality of the sky could be nothing more than the city’s legacy of smog and pollution, but there is a certain density of the light that transforms the horizon, and delivers a radiant quality to the sunsets that compel me to venture daily through the various trails that are cut into various Los Angeles mountain ranges, chasing that endlessly receding horizon into dusk, dimness, and eventually night.

Once I discovered John Ashbery, he became my companion and guide in navigating those trails. I would listen to his voice reading over your “Self Portrait” as I walked, his words transforming the landscape I traveled in. I started to view my surroundings through the images and the pressure of his phrases and the beat of his sounds. The poem was, and still is, the background to the chatter of my consciousness, as essential to my existence as my breath. I found myself thinking, writing, speaking in the language he created, understanding my experiences in his terms. Often, when I would watch the city fall under the cast of moonlight, as the traffic bloomed below, I would, watching from my remove, discover a feeling that I had

seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect.
All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within.

When I heard him speak that line, it was the first time I felt that I had truly seen the city. I can think of nothing else that has quite described the panorama of Los Angeles achieved from the top of the canyon with such perfection. Now I cannot see it any other way.

If you listen to “Self-Portrait” enough times — I have listened to it more than a thousand times now, almost daily for five years — the strain of sounds in Ashbery’s words start to present their own stereotypes. The glistening smoothness of his superfluous sibilance butts up against an excess of plosive Ps. You feel the poet sputter and spurt out language, trying to get everything out before, as it were, closing time. The sounds offer a mixture of amusement, regret, and surprise (surprise: the word is a gratuitous enjambment of S and P bursting at the seams to get out):

We have surprised him
At work, but no, he has surprised us
As he works.
The picture is almost finished,
The surprise almost over, as when one looks out,
Startled by a snowfall which even now is
Ending in specks and sparkles of snow

The exam came and went, and I returned, maybe even compulsively, to “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” I could not rid myself of its influence. I could not turn away from it; the poem became a reflection that surrounded me on all sides. I had gotten to the point where I would speak the poem alongside the poet’s own recording, and I could feel, with each S, the slow slide into what happened; with each P, lips moistened, about to part, releasing speech. I could feel the language tensely coiled in on itself, it seemed eager to spring out beyond the poem.

I could not turn away from it; the poem became a reflection that surrounded me on all sides.

When I heard that Ashbery had died this week at the age of ninety, I thought immediately of Menand’s essay, “Can Poetry Change Your Life?” Menand visits a multitude of theoretical and philosophical positions and discourses before arriving at the rather uncomplicated and almost banal observation that the answer to his titular question is entirely a matter of which poem and which life. “The funny thing about the resistance all these writers put up to the idea that poems can change people’s lives is that every one of them had his life changed by a poem. I did, too,” Menand writes. The best response Menand comes up with is a personal statement, a claim about what poetry does to him.

Ashbery, whose ear was finely tuned to the particular, would have probably loved that. Menand’s conclusion, even at the foot of a great mountain of theory, is that whether poetry changes lives is deeply personal and impossible to qualify in the abstract terms that theory requires of its objects. In the great debate about how and why poetry matters, and what, if anything, it does, I only have anecdotes and my own experience: John Ashbery changed my life. The words of the poem created my world, his worlds of words changed my life. Poetry can do this. Perhaps not in a clear-cut, quantifiable, predictable way, but surely it has and it can. Perhaps what compels a great many of us who encounter poetry and take it into our lives, our minds, and our hearts, is the unpredictability of that encounter with these strangers, the surprise in a connection with a poem when the impact could not have been foreseen, the not knowing if and when we will discover attachments through words and on pages and in rhythms, the discovery of a response we could not have willed nor anticipated.

In the great debate about how and why poetry matters, and what, if anything, it does, I only have anecdotes and my own experience: John Ashbery changed my life.

A month before Ashbery’s death, the essay had given me a chance to meditate on what John Ashbery specifically, and what poetry, broadly speaking, has meant to me. When I heard we had lost him, I knew the size of his loss to me because I had spent the week before thinking about what I had gained through his words. With Ashbery’s poem, the explosion that the poem created in me was precise and fine. His words created my world; his worlds of words changed my world.

I can’t tell you that reading “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” will change your life too. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. My world is not your world. Poetry does not change worlds like a billiard ball changes a formation of billiard balls. It does not head in a direction and with a force proportional to its aim; it does not break open the heart the way a cue ball breaks that neat triangle. You can’t aim poetry in that way. But surely it can change the formations that lie on the table, and surely it has.

Perhaps what compels those of us who encounter it is the unpredictability of that encounter, the surprise of the break, the wonder in the direction that poetry travels in spite of its aim and target, the surprise in a connection with a poem when the impact could not have been foreseen. The astonishment that something on the table, bewilderingly, ended up in the pockets.

What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific
Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form
Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past.
The light sinks today with an enthusiasm
I have known elsewhere, and known why
It seemed meaningful, that others felt this way
Years ago.

Five years after I found Ashbery’s poem (or after his poem found me), a decade after I opted out of the reading he gave in that seminar room in Massachusetts, I worry whether my mind will now ever really be mine. I doubt that it will. I find that my consciousness itself does not belong to me; it is, rather, patterned with light and dark speech that has become part of me, that is not mine but that has so thoroughly patterned my mind that I don’t know where his words end and mine begin. (I’ve italicized, here, the phrases that seem to come to me directly from Ashbery’s mouth.) Sometimes, I worry that I’ll never be able to speak freely again, that I will never see any city but as a gibbous mirrored eye of an insect. That memory will forever be understood to me in the conceptual form of it he provided for it, as irregular clumps of crystal.

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That fear is itself a part of the poem’s engine: once the poet has seen Francesco’s self-portrait, Ashbery too wonders whether he can create something new for himself without reproducing the portrait that reflects endlessly in his mind, the old forms that have embedded themselves in his consciousness. Francesco’s fear was the same: the discovery that the whole of the self seems to have been supplanted with the strict otherness of another painter, in another room. Like Francesco, Ashbery, and now I, am possessed by the fear not getting out of that enclosure, a self-enclosure that cannot help but contain the other in its reflection. Does Ashbery get out? If he does, it is only by letting go of the need to command the form, the desire to master it, by accepting 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. You can feel his release — or at least the attempt to be released from the constraints of all know-how — in the poem. Nowhere is this clearer than in the poet’s final last gasp:

The hand holds no chalk

And each part of the whole falls off

And cannot know it knew, except

Here and there, in cold pockets

Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

The stanza is alive with homonyms and alliterations, filiations and shuttlings, John Ashbery might say; the chalk crumbles, the whole falls into the vortex of its homograph. Newness — or rather, what cannot be known as new — enters into the poem, but under the cloak of what one “cannot know it knew.” The whispers, that clutter of plosives and sibilants, which end up in “cold pockets of remembrance,” are somehow out of time — but the poem is also out of time, there is room for only one final utterance. There is more to say, but the poem is out of time, and anyway, there is nothing that one could say that would complete it — more would only be included without adding to the sum. But something has landed in the pockets.

Poetry does not change worlds like a billiard ball changes a formation of billiard balls.

One final anecdote: on the night I learned of Ashbery’s death, I went back to the printed version of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” for the first time in years, certainly the first time since I had started listening to Ashbery’s recording. To my astonishment, I discovered an entire section of the poem that was unfamiliar to me. There on the page was a whole chunk of the self-portrait, a segment of the poetic sphere, that Ashbery had left out of his self-recording. The poem had kept a secret, withheld something from the whole. It was delightful, so perfect; Ashbery could not have designed a better postscript. He had, in his own words, found a way to stick his hand outside the globe and wave back at the sphere he had left behind, a gesture. Something indeed lived outside of his “Self-Portrait,” in his own reading of it. The master had mastered me once again.

And so, as I have felt about any poem worth talking about, any meaningful life I’ve tried to understand, I found that in writing I too have omitted the thing I started out to say. Out of time, I will only say this:

John Ashbery: thank you for giving me the extraordinary kaleidoscope of your poetry, a convex mirror through which I have found a self-portrait, and with which I will always find a reflection of the world.

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