Google Glass and John Ashbery

I’ve been enjoying a series of pieces by Virginia Heffernan about volunteering to be a “Google Glass” guinea pig: she’s been walking around wearing the new, much-discussed, futuristic gadget and writing about the surreal, disorienting, and often very funny experience.  Apparently, as part of her bid to be “chosen” as an early adopter (though she had to pay for the privilege), Heffernan offered to write about the “poetry” of Google Glass.

In her most recent post, she finally delivered the poetry as promised.  The first poem she discusses is, appropriately enough, John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:

I have also taken no end of self-portraits, with varying degrees of disfiguring distortion—unless I really look like that—in flat and convex mirrors at the ATM and in a hip, lo-fi café, so as to deepen both my alienation from my fellows and my new hallucinatory funhouse hyperreal vanity. (Those first few days are now known to me as The Depressing First Phase of Glass.)

Poetry inevitably surfaced, where “poetry” does not just equal sweetness and light. It was more like actual poetry, the kind with dying and lonesome despair high in the mix. It was John Ashbery in particular that came to mind, way unbidden, and his glorious ekphrastic poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” About a painting by Parmigianino, Ashbery wrote:

The soul establishes itself.

But how far can it swim out through the eyes

And still return safely to its nest? The surface

Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases

Significantly; that is, enough to make the point

That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept

In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

Ashbery’s amazing poem from the early 1970s about the difficulties of knowing, seeing, and capturing the always-mediated, always-distorted self seems like a very fitting primer for living in the brave new world of Google Glass.  But I couldn’t help but think of other Ashbery passages that resonate, like the lines in “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat“:

A look of glass stops you

And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?

Did they notice me, this time, as I am,

Or is it postponed again?

Google Glass may want to use that one for an ad campaign.  Or the dizzying opening of “Wet Casements“:

The concept is interesting: to see, as though reflected

In streaming windowpanes, the look of others through

Their own eyes.

I could go on, but will stop there.  Perhaps this just proves once again how much Ashbery has anticipated and chronicled the experience of our very strange era — our age of distraction, information overload, and “hallucinatory funhouse hyperreal vanity.”

Then again, Heffernan also refers to much older poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt  and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  But I guess they were pretty prophetic too.

In the end, some may balk at the idea of connecting Google Glass to Ashbery’s poetry, or any poetry.  But, as Heffernan says,

If this is all getting a bit arcane and English-majory, so be it. I promised Google poetry; and if you promise Google poetry, you better deliver.

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