Accidents of Priority

John Redmond

  • Can You Hear, Bird by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 128 pp, £9.95, February 1996, ISBN 1 85754 224 X
  • The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems by Jorie Graham
    Carcanet, 220 pp, £12.95, March 1996, ISBN 1 85754 225 8
  • Selected Poems by Barbara Guest
    Carcanet, 220 pp, £12.95, May 1996, ISBN 1 85754 158 8
  • Selected Poems 1976-1996 by George Szirtes
    Oxford, 126 pp, £9.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 283223 9
  • Adam’s Dream by Peter McDonald
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £6.95, March 1996, ISBN 1 85224 333 3

Famous poems, like faces, are a particularly memorable kind of introduction to the person they conceal. Like other kinds of introduction, they are often what we remember a person for, or what we think of when we hear their name. Think of Larkin, for example, and what do your see? A head like a pale, bespectacled bean and then maybe an image or two from the better-known poems, the shabby lodger, say, of ‘Mr Bleaney’, or the stony couple of ‘An Arundel Tomb’. Such reflections, it might be objected, are very superficial, but as Wilde reminds us, it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

An image painted in the 16th century by Francesco Parmigianino on a half-globe of wood is the first impression which many people take away from John Ashbery’s poetry. The poem in which it appears, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, a meditation on Parmigianino’s strange Mannerist painting, suddenly made Ashbery’s name much less obscure than his work. The collection to which it lent its name won several prizes, including the Pulitzer, and was the first of his books to be published by Carcanet. The poem itself is the single piece of writing for which he is best known and the first poem many people will read by Ashbery, particularly people on this side of the Atlantic. Like other ‘anthology-poems’, ‘Self-Portrait’ derives its popularity from the agreeable accessibility of its central figure, the sort of image we see of ourselves on the back of a teaspoon: a face eerily distorted on something resembling a giant eyeball, an image which has the startling memorability of a successful advertisement: ‘the right hand/Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer/And swerving easily away, as though to protect/What it advertises’.

But even more than other such anthology favourites, the poem is a strange introduction to Ashbery’s work, a kind of looking-glass through which we enter the wide, inner world of his poetry. This is partly because the poem’s recognisable subject is a perfect metaphor for Ashbery’s own work, and yet by virtue of being a perfect metaphor is unrepresentative. As a highly unusual example of art criticism, it is also a neat introduction to Ashbery’s other, oddly straightforward career as an art critic, while at the same time being a criticism of Ashbery’s art. Nor is this point incidental: painting has deeply influenced his poetics. On the cover of his second, highly disjunctive book, The Tennis Court Oath, he announced: ‘I attempt to use words abstractly, as an abstract painter would use paint.’ So the ‘representational’ style of ‘Self-Portrait’ is unrepresentative of some of the abstract difficulties encountered elsewhere in his work. The poem acts more like the accurate sketch of a face which an abstract painter might produce to prove he is no charlatan.

Not a straightforwardly autobiographical or confessional poet, Ashbery had kept his real self withdrawn from the poems. Both Auden and Marianne Moore, with their ironically projected and protected poetic personae, are important in this respect and acknowledged by Ashbery as major influences. The title poem of Some Trees – his first book, published in 1956, for which Auden wrote the Foreword – ends with the lines ‘Placed in a puzzling light, and moving/Our days put on such reticence/These accents seem their own defence.’ Ashbery clearly does not revel in self-promotion and the ‘reticence’ (a favourite word of Moore’s) of ‘Some Trees’ is also an issue in ‘Self-Portrait’:

Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room, an invitation
Never mailed, the ‘it was all a dream’
Syndrome, though the ‘all’ tells tersely
Enough how it wasn’t.

That phrase ‘the shield of a greeting’ is at once an image of defence and a defensive image, loosely aligning the poem with similar images, from Satan’s shield in Paradise Lost (‘Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb/Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views’) through to Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ and several poems by Marianne Moore (including ‘His Shield’ and, especially, ‘On Armour’s Undermining Modesty’). It also complements the defensive themes, the fighting shyness, in his own work. One of the troubles with introductions, with images and masks, is that their implicit defensiveness may lead to a kind of stiffness, an inability to go beyond formality. Ashbery, who likes to think about identity in terms of flow, has always worried about our projections of ourselves hardening too much, as a passage from ‘The New Spirit’, one of his long prose-poems from the mid-Seventies, indicates:

And now these attitudes which were merely sketched on the air of the room have hardened into the official likeness of what we were doing, there, the life has gone out of our acts and into our attitudes.

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