Poetry and painting are done in the same way you make love; it's an exchange of blood, a total embrace – without caution, without any thought of protecting yourself. – Joan Miro (clearly a pre-AIDS quote)
In his lecture 'The Relations Between Poetry and Painting', poet Wallace Stevens, asserts that there is "a universal poetry", of which literary poetry and painting are manifestations. Art and composition are one; poetry and painting alike created through composition. "Where the poet does his job by virtue of an effort of the mind he is in rapport with the painter, who does his job with respect to the problems of form and colour."
Artists have become writers and writers have become artists. I've been an artist in the past, not an especially good artist I have to say, but I enjoyed the process. I was a very mathematical artist. I measured things. I worked on paper first, transferred the drawing from paper to a Daler board using carbon paper, inked in the outlines and then filled in the blanks with oil paint using the tiniest of brushes, an 0 or an 00, and even tinier amounts of paint which I worked into the board carefully. A single A4 sized painting could take me 6 months. Only two have survived I'm afraid. My wife had them framed a few years back and they hang in our living room.
Robert Creeley has said that presenting people with both poetry and visual art "shifts the emotional centre." Speaking of artist Francesco Clemente, with whom he collaborated, he said, "Any person reading what I've written and seeing what he's made is moving back and forth between two emotional fields." He went on, "It's not a question of understanding the paintings, but of picking up their vibes – more like playing in a band."
cover illustration by Francesco Clemente
When I made my paintings – and it's over twenty years since I've had a brush in my hand – I considered what I was doing as a completely separate thing to my writing. I had never considered that art might have anything to do with writing. Even now, older and supposedly wiser, I still struggle with the notion. It's an oil and water thing. Oil and water don't mix but oil can make some pretty shapes floating around in water.
Anyway, I've been thinking about the relationship between poetry and art for some time so I thought I'd do some investigation and the following, which will run over three blogs, are the results.
Poets and artists (friendships)
Poets and artists have bummed around together for years. It's not as if we have different tables in the café. "Oh, sorry, you can't sit here – this is the artist's table." We're all after the same thing, to provide a reader or a viewer an opportunity to interact with a part of us.
The New York School poets and painters shared a social scene and a community, appearing frequently in each other's work and letters, reading together, working on literary journals, and becoming champions of each other’s poetry and artwork.
In, City Poet, Brad Gooch’s biography of Frank O’Hara, he provides perhaps the best (and most predictable) explanation for the collaborations of the New York School – a preference for the same drinking establishments:
We were all in our early twenties. John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and I, being poets, divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists’ bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped: in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip. So far as I know nobody painted in the San Remo while they listened to the writers argue and gossip.
It's all very understandable. Poets write about what's going on around them. And artists draw and paint what they see. It must have been the most natural thing for them to make art (both written and visual) out of their parties, squabbles, affairs and booze-ups.
The Frank O’Hara poem 'Why I Am Not a Painter' begins:
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
I get that but there were no sardines in any of my paintings; in fact my paintings were devoid of meaning. I admit that quite happily up front. I was not an artist in the purest sense of the word. Oh, I have an eye – that I am happy to admit – but no real ability. What I did was techie drawing coloured in. And yet there have been so many times I wished I could pick up a piece of paper and a pencil and words NOT flow from it.
Beckett, of course, maintained lifelong friendships with a number of artists; Louis le Brocquy, Avigdor Arikha and especially Jack B. Yeats spring to mind but there were others. Ever since people have written about Beckett they've noted that he's a writer who is, even more than usual, interested in images. In his biography of Beckett, James Knowlson writes that, according to Arikha, Beckett "could spend as much as an hour in front of a single painting, looking at it with intense concentration, savouring its forms and its colours, reading it, absorbing its minutest detail."
Similarly, in 1951, poet Frank O’Hara got a job selling postcards at the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – simply so he could have access to the paintings; he often wrote poems while he worked at the counter, and his friends in the art world often stop by to visit; in time he actually worked his way up to the position of associate curator.
There were many artists that influenced Beckett's work and that you can see in his work but I find it interesting what he had to say about the work of Jack Yeats:
What I feel he gets so well, dispassionately, not tragically like Watteau, is the heterogenicity of nature and the human denizens, the unalterable alienness of the 2 phenomena, the 2 solitudes, or the solitude and the loneliness, the loneliness in solitude, the impassable immensity between the solitude that cannot quicken to loneliness and the loneliness that cannot lapse into solitude.
It's doubtful that Yeats would have seen this in his own work and equally unlikely that this was in his mind as he painted but this solitude is what Beckett saw and went on to extend to the humans in his plays and novels.
I have to admit that, although I have a great love of art, I've never known any artists. I spent a few hours with a printmaker in Aberdeen – much to his annoyance I'm sure – and watched him work but that's about it. Actually, that's not true, Margaret, one of my friends' mums was an artist, but I never even saw any of her pictures until I knocked on her door to tell her my mum had died and art wasn't really on my mind right then.
The painters I appreciate the most are Magritte and Hopper. There was a documentary on BBC4 a wee while back where Michael Palin investigated the life of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi and I was totally bowled over by his work. But I've never been so moved by any painting that I've felt the need to put my feelings into words.
Here's the Hammershøi I have on my desktop at the moment:
Art first, poetry second
When you think of an artist's response to a work of art probably the first thing you think of is 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' by John Keats. Its inspiration is considered to be a visit by Keats to the exhibition of Grecian artefacts accompanying the display of the 'Elgin Marbles' at the British Museum.
There are a number online like 'Persistence of Memory', based on the painting of the same name by Salvador Dalí, by Gayle M. Petty;
Ferlinghetti's 'Monet's Lilies Shuddering';
Rachel Fox's 'She’s not there' inspired by Joan Eardley's self portrait – ‘Joan Eardley, 1921 -1963, Artist’ 1943;
Cathy Song's 'Girl Powdering Her Neck' after the print by Kitagawa Utamaro;
and Anne Sexton's 'The Starry Night' based on Van Gogh's painting, coincidentally also the inspiration for Don McLean's song 'Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)' (which a few weeks back I mistakenly attributed to Leonard Cohen).
One poet who has made a practice of writing poetry about specific works of art is Mark Young. He runs a blog called mark young's Series Magritte where he regularly presents us with a painting by Magritte (and there have been one or two I wasn't familiar with) coupled with a poem about the piece.
William Carlos Williams wrote a whole book of poems about an artist, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. It has its own website.
Brueghel's an interesting choice for Williams who regarded himself as a Modernist first and then a poet. Like Beckett, Williams was one who celebrated Modernism, but both artists could be inspired by the old masters. In Williams' case, Brueghel, da Vinci, Dürer, Botticelli, Bosch, El Greco and Gauguin; in Beckett's Poussin and the Dutch masters of the Golden Age, and of course Caspar David Friedrich.
Williams himself took every opportunity to remind his audience that he worked across boundaries: "For poet read – artist, painter." Williams thought about the creative process in painterly terms, and he asks us to experience the work as we might experience a modern painting: "There is no subject; it's what you put on the canvas and how you put it on that makes the difference. Poems aren't made of thoughts – they’re made of words, pigments put on ..." In an interview with Walter Sutton, Williams said explicitly, "I've attempted to fuse the poetry and painting, to make it the same thing."
Like Beckett many of Williams' closest friends were painters and/or collectors, and although he kept a safe distance from Greenwich Village, he made regular weekend visits, frequenting the informal salons of Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Arensberg, Alfred Kreymborg, Man Ray, and others. (See William Carlos Williams in a World of Painters by Bonnie Costello for more information).
Everyone knows Waiting for Godot but what a lot of people won't know is that the inspiration for this great theatrical work was a painting. Beckett told Ruby Cohn that he had remembered a Casper David Friedrich painting, 'Two Men Looking at the Moon', which he had seen during his trip to Germany prior to World War Two and had adapted this image, staging it in En attendant Godot.
I've mentioned poets up till now but other writers have also been inspired by art. My wife's longevity-enhanced, blind traveller, Blind Carbon Copy, was created first but as soon as Carrie saw Picasso's painting 'The Man with the Blue Guitar', he came to represent the character from that point on.
Better known will be Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring inspired by the painting by Vermeer. Susan Vreeland's 1999 novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue, was also inspired by a Vermeer painting, 'The Passion of Artemisia'.
It sounds Greek so it probably is Greek. In his book, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry, James A. W. Heffernan states that ekphrasis is “Composed from the Greek words ek (out) and phrazein (tell, declare, pronounce), ekphrasis originally meant ‘telling in full.’"
We're told by historians (who supposedly know about these things) that dating back to the 4th century school boys were taught to write poems about the architecture, museum art, grand public places and everyday objects such as goblets, urns or vases – for the benefit of those citizens who had little access to them. I'm not sure which citizens wouldn't have access to urns and vases but I'm just reporting what I read somewhere.
In its earliest, most restricted sense, ekphrasis referred to the verbal description of a visual representation, often of an imagined object such as the shield of Achilles in the Iliad which most texts agree is the "original" classic ekphrasitic poem expressing the principle (outlined in Horace’s Ars Poetica) of ut pictura poesis (poetry as a speaking picture and painting as mute poetry),
The point to this kind of poetry, which is probably why it's often used in schools to introduce children to poetry, is that you are not being asked to describe the work of art in question but how it makes you feel; it's a response to the art, as if you've entered the work rather than simply observed it.
I found this sheet online for a teacher to use as a handout:
Perspectives in Writing Ekphrastic Poetry
As you begin to write your ekphrastic poems, consider the following approaches:
- Write about the scene or subject being depicted in the artwork.
- Write in the voice of a person or object shown in the work of art.
- Write about your experience of looking at the art.
- Relate the work of art to something else it reminds you of.
- Imagine what was happening while the artist was creating the piece.
- Write in the voice of the artist.
- Write a dialogue among characters in a work of art.
- Speak directly to the artist or the subject(s) of the piece.
- Write in the voice of an object or person portrayed in the artwork.
- Imagine a story behind what you see depicted in the piece.
- Speculate about why the artist created this work.
Lisa Rhody—who was at the time calling herself “Calamity Jane” and was working towards her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland—has put a lot of effort into laying out Conventions of Ekphrasis. They're worth having a look at and the comments are intelligent too.
An interview with the poet, Jennifer Bosveld about how she goes about writing ekphrastic poetry is also of interest.
I'll leave you with Jennifer Bosveld's poem 'Man and Dog'. I did look for an image of the poem that inspired this online but I drew a blank and I wonder if this weakens the poem any? I'm not familiar with the artist so I can't even guess how he would portray a man and his dog. Any thoughts?
Man and Dog
response to George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
Man and Dog
oil on canvas, gift from collection of Everett D. Reese
to Columbus Museum of Art, 1998
blacks and browns at first glance
drawn in to a
sleeping border collie
round as a cake at the man’s feet
waits for nothing
is thinking of nothing
all that matters is
the breathing of the dog, that it does
and the man’s long black coat
brown suede gloves
bowler hat are
as he waits on the stool for the dog
to have his rest
in this dark corner of an alley
that could be anywhere
the man’s only thought
is the dog
to watch over it
and will take no turn at sleep
will not close his eyes
though nothing enters them that matters
everything that means
means only in relationship
to the dog
the man’s leash on the dog
is his leash on the world
here, this moment, is all