"Their reticence has undermined/ The urban scenery, made its ambiguities/ Look willful and tired, the games of an old man./ What we need now is this unlikely/ Challenger pounding on the gates of an amazed/ Castle"
It's hard to imagine John Ashbery as anything other than a bona fide celebrity in American poetry, a writer whose discursive style has spawned imitation after imitation and beguiled critic after critic. But before 1975, when his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Ashbery was just another "unlikely challenger," as his unassuming contributors' note in the August 1974 issue of Poetry makes clear: "John Ashbery will be teaching in the creative writing program at Brooklyn College beginning in September."
Despite Ashbery's lean biography in its back pages, the August 1974 issue represents a watershed in the poet's career, and, indeed, in the history of 20th century verse. Ashbery's poem that fills the first half of the magazine, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," was immediately hailed for its structural and philosophic innovations, and served as the title poem for his award-winning collection a year later. What begins as a realistic description of Parmigianino's 1524 painting of the same name widens to a digressive reflection on Art itself, sustained by Ashbery's unmistakable tone and often-neglected formal skill. Thirty-three years later, it is still celebrated as perhaps the poet's greatest triumph. (Ever the contrarian, Ashbery once declared, "I've never really cared for 'Self-Portrait' very much, and I must say I didn't like it any more when I reread it.")