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Rhetopoeia: Ashbery and Parmigianino

Rhetopoeia: Ashbery and Parmigianino

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Published by Adam Fieled
The original draft of this piece was initially presented by Adam Fieled as a seminar paper at New England College in Henniker, NH in 2005. It has since been revised.
The original draft of this piece was initially presented by Adam Fieled as a seminar paper at New England College in Henniker, NH in 2005. It has since been revised.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Adam Fieled on Aug 07, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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09/09/2013

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Rhetopoeia: Ashbery and Parmigianino
What makes any given poem necessary? The necessity of a poem isn’t buil
t intoit
 — 
we could survive without poems
 — 
but the poet must convince us why, for somereason, his or her poem is a
necessary
creation. Thus, poems have a rhetorical aspect
 — 
 they are an attempt to convince us of their own substantiality. The rhetorical impact of anany given poem might be called its
rhetopoeia
(employing and extending the lexicon of the High Mods: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia.)The rhetopoeia
c thrust of John Ashbery’s “Self 
-
Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
must, in part, be centered on the substantiality of another work of art
 — 
 
Parmigianino’s
  portrait of the same name. Ashbery, in creating this ekphrastic poem
’s rhetorical stance
,
implies that Parmigianino’s
painting is somehow incomplete. I would argue that whatAshbery inverts from
Parmigianino’s painting is
his
concavity
. Parmigianino, in trueMannerist fashion, blows himself up, exagge
rates himself. Ashbery’s “concave”
strategyis to paint
his own
portrait in a deconstructive
, metaphysical analysis of Parmigianino’s
 portrait. Ashbery presents himself reduced, playing down his own importance, leaving
the “I” of the portrait
 
undeveloped, hiding behind “we,”
 
“you,”
 
and “us.”
The meta- psycho-drama enacted is Parmigianino violently pushing Ashbery backwards, forcinghim into a defensive position, albeit in semi-eroticized fashion. It is this struggle todefend, in deciphering a complex artistic iteration, which gives the poem its necessity, itsrhetopoeia.
Ashbery’s catharsis represents Parmigianino’s, and ours with his.
Parmigianin
o’s piece
(beyond being an allegory of 
doing 
over 
being 
)
 
is about relationships. He contextualizes his portrait by placing it on a mirror surface, in a mirror frame. When we see the portrait, we experience a jolt, because itgives us an illusory sense tha
t we’re looking
into a mirror, as Parmigianino craftilysmudges boundary lines between himself and his audience. Mannerist that he is, hishands are featured more prominently than his head. Half of his face is shaded, half inlight. The gist of the entire
construct seems to be Parmigianino saying to us, “I am
unbalanced and imperfect: yet I see you and am you
.”
This is challenging, to the point
that Ashbery “cannot look for long”. Yet, the electricity which
still vibrates through
Parmigianino’s manifested
idea is captivating and ineluctable to Ashbery
 — 
he must
address it. If one does not feel as compelled by Parmigianino’s portrait as Ashbery
 does, it would be hard to accept the rhetopoeia of the poem. I, personally, am asstunned, frightened, and fascinat
ed by Parmigianino’s painting as Ashbery was, so
 
his rhetopoeia functions adequately (rhetorically convincing me of the poem’s aesthetic,
and intellectual, necessity) for me. That it is a conflict of wills adds interest.Thus, the poem decoys both as a r 
esponse to Parmigianino and as a “concave”
  portrait of Ashbery himself 
 — 
we look for him, try to find him, and cannot. Ashberyhides behind (among other things) several Eliot references
 — 
 
“Those voices in the
 
dusk have told you all”; “your eyes which are empty, know nothing”; “April sunlight.”
 
There is also a reference to Keats near the poems’ conclusion; “waking dream.”
The
Keats reference (from “Ode to a Nightingale”) is very revealing. It connects Ashbery
 to the Romantic tradition (where thoughts, moods, feelings, and all things personalare sanctified into timelessness), even as the impersonality (concavity) of the poem (aswell as the Eliot references) align him with Modern or post-modern models.
Ashbery’s
struggle with Parmigianino is in some ways reminiscent of Keat
s’ struggle with his
 nightingale;
Keats attempts to follow the nightingale into the forest (“Already withthee!”), and
to take on consonance as (to whatever extent possible) a nightingale himself.He is left in isolation, doubting himself and his psycho-affective impressions. Likewise,Ashbery follows Parmigianino into 17
th
century Parma, the atmosphere of a Mannerist painters
studio, but is left with
the “it was all a dream/ Syndrome, though the “all” tells
tersely/ Enough how it
wasn’t.” The
 
“all” of the artist’s vision becomes the heft of the poem’s rhetorical thrust; what compels us is the contradiction, always visible in
aesthetics, of evanescence-within-
existence, an “all” which is also a null set.
The irony of this situation is that Ashbery impresses us as more Romantic than
Parmigianino. Parmigianino’s portrait could be
considered a demonstration of 
 Positive
 
Capability
 — 
rather than consolidating
 binaries without “irritably grasping after reason,”
 Parmigianino subsumes everything benea
th a brazen assertion of Self, “I
-ness
.”
All binaries delineated in his portrait are self-contained, self-manufactured, and, while
he does not “irritably grasp after reason,”
the assertive humor implicit in his conceptis designed to galvanize us with his individualized, positively expressed personality.Parmigianino
might’ve been the first Conceptual
artist, the first post-modern artist, thefirst to skewer standard representational conventions in this perverse fashion.By attempting to absorb Parmigian
ino’s personality (as Keats absorbed the
 
nightingale’s
), Ashbery exerts Negative Capability (concavity) to balanceParmigian
ino’s gutsy Positive (convexity). Ashbery’s own wonted non
-linearityand skewered perspective are being reflected back at him, making him grope for an
unwonted “natural” which
 
reaches back further (both into Ashbery’s psyche and into
 

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