By Lisa Russ Spaar
When a friend of mine, a painter, wants perspective on newly finished work, he walks his canvas in front of a large mirror hanging in the studio. It is only in a reversed, refracted reflection of the piece that he can locate enough distance to assess what he’s accomplished. Another colleague, who prints and makes books, often takes a tome he’s recently stitched and bound and buries it in his back yard for a few days. When he unearths it, he feels ready to “see” the thing he’s made.
Writing itself is, of course, a kind of drawing, and for centuries writers and artists have worked in and cross-pollinated both disciplines, with poets drawing inspiration from works of art and from the techniques of their makers. Ekphrasis, which in modern times has come to refer exclusively to writing that is about art, comes from the Greek (pl. ekphraseis) for “description” and is an ancient mode (the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics cites, for instance, Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad and of the tapestries of Minerva and Arachne in Ovid). Poets working in ekphrasis might use a work of art as spark for a sustained meditation on imagined scenarios and abstractions (Keats’s ur-poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” for example) or borrow from a visual artist certain techniques (juxtaposition of color planes, for instance, or the use of negative space or distortion of scale) they can then “translate” onto the page (in syntax, lineation, form), something Charles Wright attempts perhaps most famously in what he calls his “failed experiment,” the beautiful “Homage to Paul Cezanne.”
Especially interesting in this regard is the self-portrait poem. Artists have been making self-portraits since antiquity (what model is cheaper and more readily available?), but the self-portrait poem, as a, well, self-conscious literary entity, is arguably relatively new. Some might posit that the self-portrait poem, at least in the lyric tradition, is a tautology—isn’t every poem a “portrayal,” however disguised or indirect, of its maker, be it Sappho, Bashō, Mirabai, or Father Hopkins? And yet, with notable exceptions, it isn’t until the mid-20th century that we begin to see poets calling their works “self-portraits.” A recent Granger’s search yielded 103 results for poems with “self-portrait” in the title. Only a handful of these writers, mostly from Europe, were born before the 20th-century. And while Emily Dickinson taunted “I’m nobody! Who are you” and Whitman claimed to celebrate and sing himself, and although it is possible to see Eliot in Prufrock or Yeats in “Among School Children,” with some exceptional early- to mid-20th century forays into the self-portrait (Williams, Creeley, Ammons, Justice, O’Hara), it is not until the appearance of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) that the practice of writing self-portrait poems appears to explode.
Why? An exploration of the reasons is something I’ve just begun to consider and is far beyond the scope of this piece. But I’ve always been attracted to self-portrait poems for their compelling mix of revelation and veil, for the way they abstract their subjects and implicate my reading of them into their bodying forth. I’m intrigued by the ways in which, as poet and critic Leslie Wolf has written of Ashbery, “to reach [painting’s] state of freedom in a verbal art, the poet must use the signifying quality of his medium against itself. … The poet must arrange ‘brushstrokes’ of his tableau in such a way that they yield contradictory clues.” One thing that seems fair to say is that early experimenters in the self-portrait poem were interested in and knowledgeable about art, and that the use of “self-portrait” in their poems is an overt nod to its long, fascinating, and complex tradition in art history.
Julian Bell, in his Introduction to Five Hundred Self-Portraits (a gorgeous Phaidon compilation of 500 visual and spatial self-portraits from ancient Egypt to the present) calls Ni-Ankh-Ptah, whose limestone relief carving “Self-Portrait, Kneeling in a Boat” (c. 2350) adorns the Tomb of the vizier Ptah-Hotep, the earliest known self-portraitist (“enjoying a drink while his Egyptian sailors joust”). Around 1500 AD, however, with the greater availability and quality of mirrors coming out of Venice and an increased ambition on the part of artists to elevate their social status from craftspeople to the learned class (painters began to work themselves into their historical and religious paintings in a “calling card” kind of way, for example), self-portraiture moves, as Bell says, “from the margins of Western art to centre-stage.”
Also affecting the burgeoning of self-portraiture, of course, are Renaissance notions of individual self-fashioning and an increased awareness by artists of the techniques and philosophies of their calling. As Shearer West writes in Portraiture, “underlying all self-portraiture is the mystery of how an individual sees himself or herself as other. A self-portrait involves an artist objectifying their own body and creating a ‘double’ of themselves. Artists could use the self-portrait as a means of drawing attention to the medium and the process of production of the work, to show off their skill, or to experiment with technique or style. The viewer of a self-portrait also occupies a strange position of looking at a metaphorical mirror that reflects back not themselves but the artist who produced the portrait. Viewing a self-portrait can therefore involve the sense of stepping into the artist’s shoes . . . [making] self-portraits both compelling and elusive.”
No doubt this ability to distance (and thus to see, to efface and even deface) the self while engaging in a tradition that offers the expectation of portrayal may be one attraction of self-portraiture for poets. In a meditation on Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (and evoking Michel Foucault’s analysis of that painting’s “blind point”), Anne Carson comments on the ways in which canvases and mirrors within that painting (which includes a portrait of the artist and positions the viewer of the painting in the shoes of the on-looking royals reflected on a far wall) allow the poet/reader to achieve what is almost impossible: to catch oneself in the act of seeing. “Artifice triangulates our perception,” Carson explains, “so that we all but see ourselves looking … that point where we disappear into ourselves in order to look.”
Charles Wright (“Portrait of the Artist with Hart Crane”), Jorie Graham (“Self-portrait As Hurry And Delay”), Mary Ann Samyn (“Self-Portrait as Wall Paper with Little Stoves”), and Lucie Brock-Broido (“Self-Portrait with Her Hair on Fire”) are just a few contemporary poets who have worked in a serious, serial way with self-portraiture. Of special interest to me is the self-portrait work being done by young poets, the thirty-somethings and younger, whose immersion in a culture of ubiquitous self-portrayal – in the media, technologies, social networking, even in the mirrored surfaces of our environments—extends and alters the self-portrait conversation. In closing, I offer poems by three emerging poets, David Francis, Michael Rutherglen, and Sarah Schweig, whose works strike me as contributing to the notion of what constitutes a self-portrait poem in distinct and exciting ways, whether as a “declared” self-portrait or not. Part of a generation dramatically both more claustral and more people-connected than their predecessors , these young poets (brief biographies accompany their poems, below) are involved in creating as well as reflecting a sense of what it means to be a self in poems a decade into the current century of the era Anno Domini; they help us to see ourselves.
She is, tonight, in spite of.
That’s what she said, going out,
locking the door, closing her winter coat
against the cold. She is
in spite of it all.
To hell, she says, with the weather,
swaggering to a café on Broadway.
She needs a drink & a novel
project. But how belabored
it all is. All these people
with all their first-world problems
talking over espresso red-eyes, commending
their dead-pan deliveries of jokes
about Nietzsche & flattering
each other’s dry Wittgenstein:
One of the most misleading
in our language is the use of
the word ‘I.’ (I sees that—
& yet—) “Exhausting,” she says.
“Quelle night.” What are you
searching for? As Miss S strays
back home, the salt trucks
salt the dirt-sick snow:
In spite of, in spite of, in spite of.
© by Sarah Schweig. Printed by permission of the author.
Sarah V. Schweig’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bomb Magazine, Boston Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, and Verse Daily. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Columbia University, where her manuscript was recipient of the David Craig Austin Memorial Award. Her chapbook, S, is forthcoming through Dancing Girl Press. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Self-Portrait as Mosquito
Midway through the latched room
I flew to sniff you in,
lick your blood;
rapturous hover-stud, fiber-tearing,
tooth-sinking, to drain the interstitial
vein. All I’d hoped for: a lit stove,
a taste I’d imagined: warm, a bit
of sweat mixed in, body welted
from sun, water wanting. This
is the hour you’d pulled
my sharp kiss thin and this
is the door you’d locked
with wetted key, leaving
the fan’s blades to turn. Wind
on a mattress ripped at the bed’s leg:
love in a cotton-field noon and forsythia’s
I descended in.
© by David Francis. Printed by permission of the author.
A Ph.D. candidate in romance languages and literatures at Harvard University, David Francis was a Fulbright Fellow in Colombia and is currently translating a collection of poems by the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy. His recent translations have appeared in Inventory and The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry.
The Flâneur Returns
from the crowds of the streets to the books of his shelves
to speak with himself and their loose, silent sheets
of the flow of the crowds their involute loops
iterating across irregular grids of
illuminated streets, their intricate, minuscule
movements inflected through signals
stoplights and lampposts that draw him onward
like lit notes arranged down axes abstracted
in a dim andante past clusters of figures
he wanders through to a distant position
the codaless quiet close of the loop
of his shelves and himself a twilit ellipsis
© by Michael Rutherglen. Printed by permission of the author. (Editor’s Note: The lines on the right should have an even, flush-left margin, something our blog software doesn’t quite manage. Using a jpeg or similar insert with the more-precisely even margin would make the poem look small and “fuzzy.” So A&A opted for this approach.)
Michael Rutherglen is the recipient of a 2012/2013 Amy Clampitt Residency and a founding editor of the Winter Anthology ( http://winteranthology.com/index.php ), an online collection of 21st century international literature, the first volume of which includes recent work by Charles Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido, Yves Bonnefoy, and Jean Valentine.
Lisa Russ Spaar, poetry editor for Arts & Academe, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.
(A&A illustration derived from a photo by Flickr user Jen and a Camera)