The Lake at Annecy, Cézanne.
Ut Pictura Poesis
by WILL HUBBARD
It is widely recognized that the poets living and working in New York in the 1950s and 60s were heavily influenced by the abstract painters of the period.
Indeed, James Schuyler notes that “New York poets, except I suppose the color blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble…In New York the art world is a painters’ world; writers and musicians are in the boat, but they don’t steer." From the ground, I can’t even say whether this is the case anymore.
But Schuyler’s statement belies something that aestheticians from Horace to Stein have held with conviction—that poetry and painting are perhaps the two mediums of artistic creation most similar in their ways and means.
“Painting,” in the words of Simonides, is “the silent poetry, and poetry the speaking painting."
Horace extended the argument in the Ars Poetica, reasoning that “poetry is like painting, some attracts you more if you stand near, some if you are further off. One gives pleasure once, one will please you if you look it over ten times." Horace’s “ut pictura poesis”—as is painting, so is poetry—became a common mantra in 20th century poetics: the embodiment of an aesthetic of direct visual engagement with subject matter; a concentration on, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, the familiar image made unfamiliar.
The ostensible ‘modernity’ of this aesthetic could otherwise be characterized as a distrust of the Romantic and Victorian reliance on internal/emotional forces as just source for artistic inspiration. Early in the 20th century, the notion arose that there was something more essential about the human than his sentiments, some more ideal way of processing the seeming disorder of the physical world. And what more essential, what more ideal than the simple “what one sees”—the visual as a replacement of the sentimental.
Frank O'Hara is above the young woman in the foreground.
Gertrude Stein admitted to “writing entirely with [her] eyes,” placing her writing in a context of visual translation that, previously, had been occupied only by painters. Flannery O’Connor agreed with Stein’s displacement of writers from a strictly emotional/cerebral realm to a purely visual one, reinforcing the bond between painters and poets by associating both with “the one image that will connect or embody two points."
In the poem as in the painting, the point of familiar sight within the viewer interacts with the unfamiliar sight(s) of the viewed object itself.
Our girl Flannery
Single painters or paintings have charmed two, three, or entire generations of poets, but we of course cannot assume that each poet has seen the paintings in the same light, or that each finds occasion to write about Cézanne, for example, based on similar experience or opinion of the work. It follows that these concentrations of poetry around common themes or artists rarely demonstrate alliances, but rather serve to ask, as a painting-poem by Robert Creeley does, “What/ fact of common world is/ presumed common?”
Other times, the dialogue between poets is a real one. Wilbur’s poem “The Old and New Masters” opens with the lines “About suffering, about adoration, the Old Masters/ Disagree.” Though in isolation this seems like some sort of mimicked art history lecture, it is actually a direct response to Auden’s "Museé des Beaux Arts."
Auden’s poem opens, “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters”, and we understand Wilbur’s version to be a reinterpretation of Auden, a questioning of the visual authority that Auden’s poem asserts.
But the most interesting thing about the ekphrastic mode, finally, is the spectrum of occasions that the poets have found to give voice to painting, the most purely visual art. There are, of course, poems of extensive description like Williams’ “Pictures from Brueghel” that succeed in giving the reader an accurate image of the paintings in question.
The primary concern here seems to be with images that offer the reader more than a simple physical orientation in front of the picture.
Yet even in the most essentially descriptive poems we cannot dismiss the sense of occasion the poet finds in the described painting—that is, we cannot explain a poem’s coming-into-existence by merely stating that the poet wanted to reproduce (in the mechanical sense) a painted picture. The act of reproduction is never entirely a preservative action.
There are other times, too, when the poem’s speaker seems to be primarily interested in description, but finds himself pulled somehow into the very scene he translates. Merwin’s “Two Paintings by Alfred Wallis”, for example, opens with the peculiar line “Tonight when the sea runs like a sore,” implicating the speaker physically or imaginatively in the proposed action of the painting itself. The reader, too, comes to inhabit the painting.
At the other extreme, individual paintings themselves are not even mentioned. Creeley’s “Abstract”, for example, chooses to bring into question the very fact of our ‘viewing’ of abstract art, the way in which we suppose such art to have meaning beyond one individual mind. Not so extreme perhaps, is a poem like Paul Muldoon’s “Paul Klee: They’re Biting” in which the art object is just that, an object just like a postcard, that gives occasion to the poet’s thoughts on a current romance.
Klee, Highways and Byways
And the majority of ekphrastic poems are similar to Muldoon’s—the panels which are the ostensible ‘subjects’ of the poems are revealed to be only a means by which the poet is able to re-enter himself through his reaction to visual stimulus. In a sense, they are records of the poet looking into the paradoxically accurate mirror.
As conclusion, I give nod to the two most important long poems of this occasional but enduring poetic mode. Wallace Stevens’ “The Man With the Blue Guitar” really sets the tone for a poetic conversation about painting in the 20th century—it demonstrates, in detail, the way in which a single painting can come to represent and misrepresent “things exactly as they are.”
Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” extends Stevens’ interaction with the single painting by exploring the occasional reversal of the viewer/viewed dynamic, the way in which the painting can look deeply into the poet himself and reveal things that the mirror, let alone the page, will never see.
Will Hubbard is the contributing editor to This Recording. He is spending most of April sunning himself and writing the finest volume of poetry the human mind can imagine. Talk to him next month.
MUSIC TO TAN TO
"Expecting to Fly (Neil Young cover)" - Emily Haines (mp3)
"Neighbors" - The Long Division (mp3)
"Space Park" - The Long Division (mp3)
"Fire Island, AK" - The Long Winters (mp3)
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