by Lisa Russ Spaar

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 . . .

MORE: Read “Thoughts on Poetic Self-Portraiture” by Lisa Russ Spaar in its entirety at chronicle.com.

IMAGE: “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1524) by Parmigianino (1503-1540).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Russ Spaar‘s most recent book of poems is Vanitas, Rough (December 2012). A collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry (available at Amazon.com) was released in March 2013. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Weinstein Award for Poetry, the Library of Virginia Award, and a Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers. Spaar is a professor at the University of Virginia.