First Advisor

Paul Giles

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in English






John Ashbery. Self-portrait in a convex mirror



Physical Description

1 online resource (2, 86 p.)


This thesis examines John Ashbery's poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" and its revision of the traditional distinction between theory and poetry. Drawing a relationship between the poem's subject and the practices of postmodern theoretical discourse, the thesis posits the poem as an artifact of these changes. Creating a context for the poem, these developments not only inform the climate in which Ashbery's poem takes on significance, but, as well, explain the changing nature of literary study. Historical in its approach to the pressures and impulses within this climate of aesthetic production, the thesis traces the distinction between science and literature and how it has influenced the creation of the literary discipline. Demonstrating that the disciplinary study of literature has always been the subject of debate and discussion, it uses this understanding to place present disagreements about the need or usefulness of theory in the context of historical disagreements over the difference of literature from science or philosophy. Explaining that postmodern theory has largely worked to foreground the arbitrary nature of distinctions such as that between theory and poetry, the thesis elaborates on how poststructuralism undoes these distinctions to show how they are always the result of particular political and ideological views of representation. Using this critical insight, the thesis then reads closely the details of the poem's relationship to postmodern theory, how it works to undo the distinction between theory and poetry. Having undone this traditional distinction, however, leaves the poem in an ambivalent and unstable position. Since it passes between extant categorical definitions its own nature remains undecided and, thus, maintains an engagement with and resistance to tradition. It remains caught between the need for the aesthetic past and the need for a freedom from that past. Chapter four, therefore, explores this ambivalence, particularly as it relates to the inheritance of romanticism and modernism. Finally, in chapter five, the thesis revises the main critical perception of Ashbery as postmodern, making a case for his closer affiliation with a late version of modernism. Because of Ashbery's preoccupation with the aesthetic past, his use of the imagery, insights, and idealism of our aesthetic history, he appears to re-create a distinction between high and popular art that is more consonant with a version of modernism.


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