Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is the title of both the anchor poem and the collection in which it is found. The title poem was inspired by references the painting of the same name by Renaissance artist Francesco Mazzola. The collection pulled off the triple crown of literary awards in 1976, earning John Ashbery a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award.
There are two defining features of a convex mirror as opposed to a standard flat mirror. One, of course, is that it the reflection is distorted rather that providing a replication of the two-dimensionality of that which is reflected. The other important feature of the convex shape is that anyone standing at an angle where they can see the reflection of someone else will also be able to be seen that person. Thus, the title poem in particular and the bulk of the rest of the poems making up the collection present an overriding theme in which the poet is examining issues of his own identity from his own perspective, but in a way that brings the reader into the interpretative process since there is no angle the verse can be read from which doesn’t offer a glimpse at the distorted image of the poet’s own reflection. And, of course, since any interpretation of meaning says as much about the interpreter as the world being interpreted, the reader is also looking at a distorted reflection of himself.
The runaway critical success of the collectionSelf-Portrait in a Convex Mirror transformed Ashbery’s career from being merely one of the leading figures of the more avant-garde New York School of poets that rose to prominence during the 1950’s and 1960’s into a major figure. The title poem is often listed among the finest achievements in 20th century verse.