Poem Sampler

From the Archive: John Ashbery

The poem that spurred his rise to greatness,  first published in Poetry magazine.
By The Editors
"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"

John AsberyIt'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.")


Originally Published: June 1st, 2007
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  1. July 4, 2009
     Matthew Held

    Ashbery years ago printed a poem in the New Yorker magazine that had in it the line: "dirty as a comb,' as the French say."

    Could you enlighten me as to the title of that poem, in which collection it appears? I thought it was a fine poem, but have lost the page I cut out.

    Matthew Held

  2. January 25, 2011
     Roger McKeon

    In response to Matthew Held.

    The poem in which John Ashbery wrote

    [The pocket comb—"dirty as a comb,"
    the French say,] (not "as the French
    say"), second line, is entitled "Ghost
    Riders of the Moon". It was indeed
    published by the New Yorker in its
    December 13, 1993 issue, p. 110


    It can also be found in a collection
    entitled "And the Stars Were Shining" as
    well as in another one, entitled "Notes
    from the Air: Selected Later Poems".

  3. September 17, 2013
     tim dyson

    Though I enjoy some of what I have read, Ashbery's poetry comes across as a planned obscurity. The critics seem to sift through the sandbox looking for a diamond that may or may not be there. Even if it is there, it is probably a fake. But then, life is a search, a plodding along enjoying the tidbits and accumulating memories as to how the tidbits fit.
    There's a line in a song by The Band 'I don't like the way he sings but I sure love the way he talks.' Ashbery has mad Spike Jones proud.