These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We are thankful of their contributions and encourage you to make your own.
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.
Guided writing exercises are a great way to condition your writing muscles. Since April is National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a how-to post related to poetry. I was first introduced to Wendy Bishop’s 15-Sentence Portrait Poem in a graduate-level creative writing class. While this exercise is often composed in paragraph form, I’ve adapted it as a poetry exercise.
The following poem about my grandfather resulted from this 15-Sentence Portrait Poem. I later used it as a classroom example in a lesson plan with high school students. Writing teachers should most definitely write with their students! Feel free to check out my Grandpa Red pantoum poem over at Misadventures in Strange Places as well.
15-Sentence Portrait Poem Guidelines
For a title, choose words for an emotion or a color that represents an important person in your life. You will not mention this person’s name in the writing.
1. For the first-line starter, choose one of the following:
• You stand there… / No one is here… / In this (memory, photograph, dream, etc.), you are… / I think sometimes… / The face is… / We had been… / Now complete this sentence.
2. Write a sentence with a color in it.
3. Write a sentence with a part of the body in it.
4. Write a sentence with a simile (a comparison using like or as).
5. Write a sentence of over 15 words.
6. Write a sentence under eight words.
7. Write a sentence with a piece of clothing in it.
8. Write a sentence with a wish in it.
9. Write a sentence with an animal in it.
10. Write a sentence in which three or more words alliterate; that is they begin with the same initial consonant, as in “Suzie sells seashells by the seashore.”
11. Write a sentence with two commas.
12. Write a sentence with a smell and a color in it.
13. Write another sentence with a simile.
14. Write a sentence with four words or less in it.
15. Write a sentence to end this portrait that uses the word or words you chose for a title.
I hope you have some fun with this! Here are a couple more examples produced by students:
Write a poem for National Poetry Month using this 15-Sentence Portrait Poem prompt.
Have you tried this exercise or ones similar to it?
Permission must be granted by Jeri Walker to use the images in this post.