Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles




John Ashbery

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror


Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec


Collection Clefs Concours Anglais Littérature

Neuilly : Atlande, 2019

Broché. 240 pages. ISBN 978-2350306056. 19€


Reviewed by Noëlle Cuny

Université de Haute-Alsace (Mulhouse)



Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s handbook, commissioned by Atlande to cater for the needs of the 2019-2021 agrégation students, was designed to be exactly that: a pocket-size toolbox full of quick-reference lists, timelines, biographical sketches, intertextual references, and selected thematic points of entry into John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). But it is also much more than that. It is engaging enough to make anyone new to avant-garde 1970s poetry like myself curious of these strange, “disjunct”, “difficult” poems, let alone an agrégation student who (consider it for a minute!) may depend on this for their future career.


The opening is very clear about objectives. This is about taking and passing a notoriously hard competitive exam. So let’s not waste time and money travelling to Boston to “sit at [the poet’s] desk while trying to write your own poem, as Harvard undergraduates are now encouraged to do” [9]. And yet… can a fledgling poet or critic not be excused for trying to put themselves in the shoes, or at least following in the footsteps of a writer they admire? Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec herself, as I know from having enjoyed her famed tour of Modernist Paris, is a great (and brisk) walker of inspirational places. Under her guidance, it becomes clear that a writer’s experience of exile, of cross-cultural exchange and networking, are things to be felt rather than heard about in ex-cathedra lessons or even read about in handbooks. But some of Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s taste for place made it into her brilliant little book, one of whose fiches thématiques is aptly entitled “Sightings and pathways through Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. Tracking John Ashbery and his contemporaries is fun because it is like a walk in the city, or a trip from coast to coast, or over the Atlantic, or indeed a mental hike, a moving mindscape, as Ashbery himself put it in Richard Moore’s film USA Poetry in 1966: “scenery, objects, and people tend to be kind of disappearing and what it is involved with is it to make concrete passing states of mind, mental things” [62]. In the poet’s account, it had to do with living in Paris and feeling disconnected from one’s native language. Similarly, the author of this handbook is a true cosmopolitan, one who knows how much is gained from moving about, or simply from hanging out, from not being home. Page 50 is a perfect night out in New York City in the late 40s: Cedar Tavern, the San Remo bar in the Village, and the Wellworth Café in Harlem. As the reader is soon made aware, a sense of displacement is crucial to understanding poetry as transformative process.


Chapter two provides literary context: the Black Mountain College and its polar opposite, New Criticism; the Beat poets; Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry: 1945-1960; the three generations of the New York School; “The Movement’’ in Britain; American Confessional Poetry; Postmodernism; the San Francisco Avant-Garde; L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry. Apart from the hard facts about these groups that just need to be known, the lessons of this chapter are twofold: 1) do not be fooled by Ashbery’s apparent apolitical aloofness: his poems are to be read also in their political context, such as the Nixon years; 2) in the spirit of multipractice communities such as the Black Mountain College, language is music is poetry is painting. Musicians as different as Franz Lizst and John Cage were among Ashbery’s major influences, and “painting’s creative processes influenced [New York School] poetics” [55]. At this point the central idea of self-scrutiny or self-contemplation is introduced, in an elegant phrase characterizing the painterly poetics of Ashbery and his group: “Mimesis could be about the ‘me’: Pollock had emphasized: ‘I am nature’” [55]. Two pages devoted to the self-portrait tradition later follow up on this [127-128], with a list of predecessors to Ashbery’s particular reworking of the genre, where the face to be seen is someone else’s from four centuries ago and the ‘me’ is flux and change rather than set features.


Chapters three and four offer reading aids for the collection itself, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975): an exploration of French connections, the American bicentennial, climate / ecology / ambiance, the poetics of transcendence, and light effects. Collage is discussed over ten valuable pages as the main modus operandi, and numerous leads are provided as to potential or documented sources for the pieces of the puzzle or its subtext: Homer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Proust, Raymond Roussel, Bossuet, Matisse… Given the importance of juxtaposition in the reading / viewing / listening protocols that had been put in place since the early phases of Modernism and have been current ever since, chapter three might have been the right place to present the magazines in which the poems first appeared as a framing kind of collage, and perhaps to invite students to consider the poems in their native milieu. The surrounding poems in the October 1974 issue of Poetry must have colored early readings of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, with their insistence on death and burial, and the war from which the USA had just withdrawn still on everybody’s minds. This might have further strengthened Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s contextualizing of the poem within the ambiance of democratic self-doubt of the years around the Bicentennial [81-82 and 132-134].


Chapter five focuses on the title poem. Parmigianino is presented, the creator of the Mannerist cinquecento curio that is the original Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; an admirably brief history of self-portraits as a genre is offered; and the successive covers of John Ashbery’s 1975 collection are discussed, in their illustrative dialogue with the poems. This is a most welcome initiative. It opens up interpretation to more materialist approaches; the baffled reader feels empowered, as students do when asked to comment on visual and editorial paraphernalia rather than the too-obscure verse itself, little knowing that they are, in the process, really making their entrance into the revered and dreaded temple. The central part of the chapter on the title poem is a strong study of its intertext, which presents itself as an invitation to follow these ramifications further or to tease out new connections. Here as elsewhere, I salute the author’s careful inclusion of the most recent work on Ashbury, much of it French (the now classic John Ashbury : À contre-voix de l’Amérique, by A. Cazé, Pierre-Yves Pétillon’s Histoire de la Littérature Américaine, as wells as books by Hélène Aji, Caroline Pollentier and Xavier Kalck, of the French Society for Modernist Studies), and some of it only a few months old (Anne Lauterbach’s Youtube-broadcast talk at the Sorbonne in October 2019).


Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s writing is at its best when it models itself on the congenial informality of its object to suddenly zoom in, in very narrow focus, on a particularly telling co-occurrence of cognitive events in the poem and material events in the code of the printed page. For example, when trying to account for what happens between lines 21-26 and lines 44-46, remembering how important Wallace Stevens was to Ashbery, she writes:

The evocation of the souls offers the abstraction that Stevens prescribed. Captivity and constraint are central to much of the first section […] The poetic voice describes being trapped within one’s own art. And then something pops, the description flip-flops back on itself […] Our moment of attention animates the soul as it animates the poem, in an original hypallage, at the point where in the first published version of the poem in 1974, there was a stanza break. [141]

This is one of those fine moments in the handbook when one feels the persistence of the original magazine as the collage-like medium which began to fashion the reception – the message, in a sense – of this extremely rich poem. These pages also show that far from a well-wrought urn the poem is a rhizomic, open-ended object en devenir (the Deleuzian overtones are not fortuitous, and some recent open-access commentary indicates how productive a Deleuzian reading of this poem can be).

One winces briefly to see Parmigianino referred to as “the little cheese painter”, as the author playfully imagines the student unfamiliar with Italian unsettled by the odd-sounding nickname [143], but this is just another sign of Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s wonderful ability to sense and anticipate the catches in her students’ thought-processes. One is agreeably stimulated by the erudite ease of her authoritative yet warm and lively voice. Clearly, the user of this manual is in the hands of a first-class researcher and teacher. In her capacity as a Geoffrey Hill expert, Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec is also well equipped to convey a sense of the collective and emulative effort that poetry writing can be. In several places, this book makes it evident what a novel and productive angle of approach the Hill-Ashbery conjunction is.

Formally, there is a small number of imperfections: some font size variation, a couple of typos, two lines of verse unseparated in the important quote p. 141. But it is a remarkably clean text, in spite of the daunting delivery deadlines that are one of the constraints of publishing for a French concours (other limitations pertaining to the genre include the absence of an index and the absence of images, the latter making it necessary for the student to have a connected viewing device at hand while reading the handbook to look up the numerous musical or visual pieces pointed to as elements of the Ashberian collage). The writing is reader-friendly and helpful in its transitions, with short, manageable and clearly titled subchapters.

Another sign of the author’s rare capacity for teacherly empathy is her sensitivity to time management issues and prioritizing. The bibliography is “very select” indeed, but usefully itemized and hierarchized for concours preparation purposes. One is assured that listening to all four minutes of Liszt’s “Grand Galop Chromatique” is time well spent, and that looking at Ashbery’s visual collages is worth one’s while when trying to understand how his poetry works. I am unsure what non-specialist students in a hurry will make of chapter seven, an endeavour to assess the impact of John Ashbery’s work by tracing a wide constellation of poets he may or may not have interacted with and of potential heirs to his style [175-190], but the appendices are invaluable time savers: lists of artists and musicians Ashbery met and/or wrote about and of French authors translated by him, as well as an ambitious cultural timeline spanning a century and a half and juxtaposing literary / artistic with mass culture landmarks and social / political events.

While all interpretations offered by Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec are backed up with considerable research and show great confidence navigating vast tracts of twentieth-century French / British / American poetry and art, plenty of room is left for creative hypothesis and open questioning, as it should be. As chapter six covers Ashbery’s other works beside Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, interpretations are put forward that are invitations to make further connections of one’s own. Is there an echo of Geoffrey Hill’s “Genesis” in “Absolute Clearance”, or actual dialogue with the younger poet in “Tenebrae” (from Wakefulness) [159]? Is there a reminiscence of Elisabeth Bishop in “The Short Answer” (from Quick Question) [171]? These and other such suggestions elsewhere in the book are in fact so compelling as to count as authoritative readings, interwoven as they are with more established comparisons with T.S. Eliot, with Shakespeare, with French Surrealism... And so we are given not only the quintessence of significant research on Ashbery but a new John Ashbery, a collaged portrait curated with love and admiration for “a poet for the age”: one whose writing nurtures in its young readers a wholesome indignation in the presence of politics that, like the poem “But Seriously” (Commotion of the Birds, 2017), begins in “a famous New-York strip-club joint and ends with a film about the mob” [173], of anthropogenic climate change [106-116 and 201-202] and of sick “so-called orthodoxies” [204].



Cercles © 2020

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.