Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061




Self-Portrait in an Opaque Language:

John Ashbery and the Deconstruction of Language


The poetry of John Ashbery, especially the volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, exemplifies the tense union of two paramount, yet conflicting, strains of influence in contemporary American poetry: the traditional Romantic lyric meditation and the rise of poststructuralist theory in America since the 1970s. At the heart of this duelistic pairing lie deviating attitudes towards tropes, which the theory of Paul de Man bestrides in such seminal works as "Semiology and Rhetoric" and The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Are figures full or empty, and what does this do to a psyche composed of and by tropes? Are rhetorical tropes gateways into being and sublime reality, or do they instead offer only ironic reflection that leaves the writer stuck on the outside of subjectivity constituted by language, looking in at nothing? De Man deconstructs this binary by envisioning a poetry of irony that revels in the limitless possibilities that the deconstruction of tropes affords Romantic subjectivity; and Ashbery's poetry obliges by developing self-consciously playing with the opaque language that functions to mediate his consciousness. His abstract expressionism turns figures against themselves in order to reflexively ironize his subjectivity out of habitual ideas of the self and into a psychic reality that exceeds conventional conceptualization. In "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" and "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," for instance, the poet meditates upon the nature of reflection and representation, concluding that language is merely a speculative structure, devoid of deep interiority; therefore, tropes ironically constitute an inwardness of postures and merely (mirrorly) impersonate subjectivity. Ashbery conceptualizes subjectivity as pure trope, sliding along the surface of language; Ashbery is a post-Romantic who uses deManian rhetorical theory as a critique of being, disseminating subjectivity with the density of textuality as reflected/reflexive meaning.


This abstract summarizes my presentation, "Self-Portrait in an Opaque Language: John Ashbery and the Deconstruction of Language," Tropology: Text &Context, Binghamton, NY, March 21, 2003. Schedule