Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Art Class

(La trahison des images or The Treachery of Images,
also popularly known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe or This
Is Not a Pipe
, by René Magritte, 1898-1967, Belgian
Surrealist painter)

We have now come to the end of this month’s examination of ekphrasis, literary commentary about works of art.

In their studies of examples of art, the poems have dealt with images that are not the reality but are instead the descriptions or representations of a reality.

The picture above is not the object; it is the image of the object. “Could you stuff my pipe?” asked Magritte, its painter. “No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!”

What does it mean for this painting to be just a representation? “Nowhere is there a pipe,” wrote the French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984). “Scarcely has [the person who is explaining this painting] stated, ‘This is a pipe,’ before he must correct himself and stutter, ‘This is not a pipe, but a drawing of a pipe,’ ‘This is not a pipe but a sentence saying that this is not a pipe,’ ‘The sentence “this is not a pipe,” is not a pipe,’ ‘In the sentence “this is not a pipe,”
this is not a pipe: the painting, written sentence, drawing of a pipe — all this is not a pipe.’”


Let us begin with a simple line,
Drawn as a child would draw it,
To indicate the horizon,

More real than the real horizon,
Which is less than line,
Which is visible abstraction, a ratio.

The line ravishes the page with implications
Of white earth, white sky!

The horizon moves as we move,
Making us feel central.
But the horizon is an empty shell —

Strange radius whose center is peripheral.
As the horizon draws us on, withdrawing,
The line draws us in,

Requiring further lines,
Engendering curves, verticals, diagonals,
Urging shades, shapes, figures . . .

What should we place, in all good faith,
On the horizon? A stone?
An empty chair? A submarine?

Take your time. Take it easy.
The horizon will not stop abstracting us.

~ John Galvin, born 1951, American poet and painter

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Head of Christ

(The Head of Christ by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669,
Dutch painter, printmaker, and draughtsman)

One of the more challenging subjects to put on canvas must surely be Jesus of Nazareth. There are no actual images of him, likenesses made in his lifetime; and yet, there are many images of him, as envisioned by various artists across the centuries.

The Christian faith teaches that Jesus Christ is both Son of God and Son of Man. The artists point to his divinity by adding a shining halo, and to his nature as man by drawing a beard and shoulder-length hair. Both depictions are so familiar that we would recognize him in pictures of almost any setting.

In this painting of Jesus the man, Rembrandt applied the traditional characteristics in composing his face. (His model was a young man from the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.) But his rendering makes the image new. Rembrandt leads us to a richer understanding of his subject. A skilled portraitist is also a biographer.


What he sees he takes in.
Every human sorrow
fuels the fire that burns
low and steady
in his open heart.

He looked at the leper like this,
imagining the man’s life
before he changed it.

He looked at the centurion and saw
what it must be for a father
to watch his child die.

He looked at the woman by the well,
saw her five husbands, and sent her home
with a promise; at the woman caught
in adultery, and did not condemn her;
at the woman weeping at his feet — knowing
she knew him, who walked the dusty earth
unrecognized — and honored her extravagance.

One might live long
just to be looked at once this way,
judged, forgiven, and blessed,
taken in, recognized — a prayer answered
in eyes that meet longing and assuage it:
“Lord, remember me
when you come into your kingdom.”

~ Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, born 1949, American poet and essayist, from Drawn to the Light: Poems on Rembrandt's Religious Paintings

Friday, October 29, 2010


(The Art of Painting by Jan Vermeer, 1632-1675,
Dutch painter)

Today’s poem is more about the poet than it is about the painting.

Vermeer was a master of the Dutch Golden Age. He worked slowly and carefully, producing fewer than forty paintings that we know of. He is noted for his peaceful and harmonious scenes of domestic life in Delft, featuring the perfect rendering of daylight and the delicate depiction of pensive women.

The painting here is believed to be the only self-portrait of the artist, albeit seen from the back. The woman is posing as Clio, the Greek muse of history, with a laurel wreath on her head and a folio in her hand.

The Art of Painting inspired the poet Robert Lowell to make a personal observation. In his poem, he seems to be struggling to follow Vermeer’s technique in creating an image. He wants to avoid the static snapshot in favor of the artist’s quiet telling of a story.


Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme —
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.

But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

~ Robert Lowell (1917-1977), American poet

The Art of Painting also inspired a surprising comment, in oils, from a painter. The Spanish Surrealist artist Salvador Dali greatly admired Vermeer. In 1934, he made this image, the very opposite of Vermeer’s realism:

(The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can
Be Used as a Table
by Salvador Dali, 1904-1989)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Candle Hat

(Self-Portrait in the Studio by Francisco
de Goya, 1746-1828, Spanish painter
and printmaker)

(Detail showing metal band holding
candles around the hat’s crown)

One of the greatest Spanish artists, Goya was famous for his portraits as official court painter and later, for his etchings of the violence of the French troops under Napoleon who had invaded Spain.

According to his son, when Goya painted his portraits, he worked “in only one session, sometimes of ten hours, but never in the late afternoon. The last touches for a better effect of a picture he gave at night, by artificial light” or candlelight.


In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cézanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrandt looks relieved, as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
then laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.
Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
“Come in,” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

~ Billy Collins, born 1941, American poet

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fall of Icarus

The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17 or 18) published his great poem Metamorphoses around A.D. 8. It was a 15-volume collection of Greek and Roman myths narrating the history of the world, from its beginnings up to the deification of Julius Caesar and the reign of Augustus.

One of the myths Ovid tells is the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, a great Athenian artisan. They were imprisoned on Crete. To escape to Sicily, Daedalus made two pairs of wings from feathers and wax. He cautioned his son not to fly too close over the sea, the feathers would get drenched, and not to fly too close to the sun, the wax would melt. But Icarus climbed too high and the wax melted and he fell to the sea and drowned.

Pieter Bruegel (or Brueghel) the Elder’s painting
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is this Dutch painter's version of the well-known tale. He includes details from the description of the scene in Metamorphoses:

Some angler catching his fish with a quivering rod,
Or a shepherd leaning on his crook,
Or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough . . .

(Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
the Elder, 1529?-1569)

W. H. Auden wrote a poem about this picture after a visit to the Museum of Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1938. He begins by alluding to two other paintings by Bruegel:

(The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

(Christ Carrying the Cross by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

In these three paintings, Bruegel shows how life goes on for the crowds — even in the midst of great drama. In Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the ploughman and the others are oblivious to the flailing limbs of the drowning man (at the bottom right corner of the painting). In The Census of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph arrive to record their names, just before “the miraculous birth” of Jesus. At the center of Christ Carrying the Cross, there is great suffering as “the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.”

Witnesses can be blind to the human suffering around them. But the artist pays attention.


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

~ W. H. Auden (1907-1973), English-born American poet and essayist

William Carlos Williams also wrote about this painting of Icarus, one of ten poems he composed about the works of Bruegel the Elder. (See the post of September 10, Grain Harvest.)


According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

~ William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American poet and practicing physician

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Before you Read the Plaque about Turner's “Slave Ship”

(The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing Overboard the
Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On
, by J. M. W. Turner,
1775-1851, English painter, watercolorist, and printmaker)

Captains of slave ships carrying people in chains from Africa across the Middle Passage into slavery in the New World would throw the sick and dying overboard. The captain and the owners could then collect insurance for the lost “cargo”; there was no compensation for the lives of human beings lost to illness.

In 1783, the English slave ship Zong got lost, and sixty slaves and seven crew members died from illness. Thinking that the remaining slaves would become too weak to fetch good money in the slave auctions in Jamaica, the captain ordered 132 African men, women, and children to be shackled and thrown into the sea. One man survived to tell the tale. The case came to the courts in England. The insurance company won and did not pay the claim. No one faced any prosecution for this crime.

Turner painted this image, one of his most famous paintings, in 1840. The British Parliament had abolished the slave trade across its Empire thirty-three years earlier. Slavery was still flourishing, however, in countries ruled by Europe and in the United States. Turner offered this painting as part of the campaign against slavery.

Turner was inspired to create this deeply disturbing image by his abhorrence of slavery. He knew of the notorious case of the Zong, and he had read this verse by James Thomson:

from SUMMER, a part of THE SEASONS

Increasing still the terrors of these storms,
His jaws horrific arm’d with threefold fate,
Here dwells the direful Shark. Lured by the scent
Of steaming crowds, of rank disease, and death,
Behold, he, rushing, cuts the briny flood,
Swift as the Gale can bear the ship along;
And, from the partners of that cruel trade,
Which spoils unhappy Guinea of her sons,
Demands his share of prey — demands themselves.
The stormy Fates descend: one death involves
Tyrants and slaves; when straight, their mangled limbs
Crashing at once, he dyes the purple seas
With gore, and riots in the vengeful meal.

~ James Thomson (1700-1748), Scottish poet and playwright

While the captain of the Zong was not punished, in Turner’s depiction, the captain and crew of the slave ship all face divine fury. Notice at the bottom of the painting the mangled and shackled limbs of the murdered slaves, and above them, the slave ship, a ghost ship, empty, its captain and crew thrown into the maelstrom.

When the painting was first shown in the British Royal Academy in 1840, Turner attached this verse he himself had written in 1812:


Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhoon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying — ne’er heed their chains.
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?

The last two lines of that poem were later carved on a plaque below the painting. (In the poem below, inspired by the painting, the poet repeats the plaque’s misspelling of “fallacious” as “fanacious.”)


See the bare canvas. A pure white
bone that splits the sky’s
weak, warm skin of colors.

What will be left on the ocean floor,
What will be left under the swells,
What will be left is unspeakable
and vivid and not the vicious beauty
of cracking masts against the atmosphere
writing lines of blood. Not the blended light,
or the curious gulls. Not the market’s
fanacious hope.

Not the gods’ desperation to include us in this disaster,
without our will. But the bare, bright,
smoothed bones of many, many hands,

so cold, down where the master
could not imagine,
could not light
the darkest depths.

~ David Wright, American poet

Monday, October 25, 2010


(Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1892-1967, American
painter and printmaker)

This famous painting could just as well have been called Night Owls, the benign name for people you meet late at night, people having problems getting to sleep or coming home after a late shift at work.

But the actual title,
Nighthawks, places the four around the counter in a more sinister setting, reminding us of a scene in a film noir of the 1940’s and 50’s. We wonder what is really happening, and how will this end.

Three poets suggest their own possible screenplays for this story.


It is night
and the city is deserted.

The lucky ones are at home,
or more likely
there are none left.

In Hopper’s painting, four people remain
the usual cast, so-to-speak:
the man behind the counter, two men and a woman.
Art lovers, you can stone me
but I know this situation pretty well.

Two men and one woman
as if this were mere chance.
You admire the painting’s composition
but what grabs me is the erotic pleasure
of complete emptiness.

They don’t say a word, and why should they?
Both of them smoking, but there is no smoke.
I bet she wrote him a letter.
Whatever it said, he’s no longer the man
who’d read her letters twice.

The radio is broken.
The air conditioner hums.
I hear a police siren wail.
Two block away in a doorway, a junkie groans
and sticks a needle in his vein.
That’s how the part you don’t see looks.

The other man is by himself
remembering a woman,
she wore a red dress, too.
That was ages ago.
He likes knowing women like this still exist
but he’s no longer interested.

What might have been
between them, back then?
I bet he wanted her.
I bet she said no.

No wonder, art lovers,
that this man is turning his back on you.

~ Wolf Wondratschek, born 1943, German writer and poet


“He himself admitted that it might be present, but denied that it was intended. Indeed, the emphasis on it annoyed him: ‘The loneliness thing is overdone,’ he said. But it undeniably exists.” ~ Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper

Or is it the light that exists for him as he paints?
Not that old buttery-yellow light-bulb light,
but this miraculous light the makers call “fluorescent,”
this clear-as-day light that bathes the diner,
this harbor in a sea of darkness. How it pours
through the plate-glass window, rinsing the red brick
wall across the street, spilling through the window
of somebody fast asleep! It’s seeping into her dream.

You’d think the man in the white cap had more light
than a man would need to make it through this night.
The coffee urns are beaming over his shoulder
like stainless angels! What else would he talk about
to the dude whose cigarette’s gone out? And what
would the lady be studying there but a book of matches?
And the man in the dark gray hat with his back to us —
is there anything left in his glass but light, more light?

~ Donald Finkel (1929-2008), American poet


The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest; she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand, thinking that
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him? Her heavy-lidded eyes,
pouty lipsticked mouth, she has the redhead’s
true pallor like skim milk, damned good-looking
and she guesses she knows it, but what exactly
has it gotten her so far, and where? — he’ll start
to feel guilty in a few days, she knows
the signs, an actual smell, sweaty, rancid, like
dirty socks; he’ll slip away to make telephone calls
and she swears she isn’t going to go through that
again, isn’t going to break down crying or begging
nor is she going to scream at him, she’s finished
with all that. And he’s silent beside her,
not the kind to talk much but he’s thinking
thank God he made the right move at last,
he’s a little dazed like a man in a dream —
is this a dream? — so much that’s wide, still,
mute, horizontal, and the counterman in white,
stooped as he is and unmoving, and the man
on the other stool unmoving except to sip
his coffee; but he’s feeling pretty good,
it’s primarily relief, this time he’s sure
as h*** going to make it work, he owes it to her
and to himself. . . . And she’s thinking
the light in this place is too bright, probably
not very flattering, she hates it when her lipstick
wears off and her makeup gets caked, she’d like
to use a ladies’ room but there isn’t one here
and . . . how long before a gas station opens? —
it’s the middle of the night and she has a feeling
time is never going to budge. This time
though she isn’t going to demean herself —
he starts in about his wife, his kids, how
he let them down, they trusted him and he let
them down, she’ll slam out of the g*******d room
and if he calls her Sugar or Baby in that voice,
running his hands over her like he has the right,
she’ll slap his face hard, You know I hate that: STOP!
And he’ll stop. He’d better. The angrier
she gets the stiller she is, hasn’t said a word
for the past ten minutes, not a strand
of her hair stirs, and it smells a little like ashes
or like the henna she uses to brighten it, but
the smell is faint or anyway, crazy for her
like he is, he doesn’t notice, or mind —
burying his hot face in her neck. . . . She’s still contemplating
the cigarette burning in her hand,
the counterman is still stooped gaping
at her, and he doesn’t mind that, why not,
as long as she doesn’t look back, in fact
he’s thinking he’s the luckiest man in the world
so why isn’t he happier?

~ Joyce Carol Oates, born 1938, American poet, novelist, and essayist

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Abraham and Isaac

(The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing
Isaac to God
by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669,
Dutch painter, printmaker, and draughtsman)

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most difficult to understand and accept.

As told in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament, the story begins when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the only son born to him and Sarah. But before Abraham completes the act, an angel calls out, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do nothing to him. I know now that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me.” Then Abraham “looked about and saw a ram caught by its horns in the bush. He went and took it, and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son.”

What is the meaning of this story?

First, it is a test of Abraham’s trust in God, who had condemned human sacrifice before. It is also the final and conclusive instruction against the offering of human sacrifices to the gods, a common practice among the tribes around the Jews at the time.

Rembrandt made this painting in 1663. It is one of his many Biblical histories where he used as models persons he met in the flourishing Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.

“The psychological truth in Rembrandt’s paintings,” wrote Kenneth Clark in
Civilization, “goes beyond that of any other artist who has ever lived. Of course they are masterpieces of sheer picture-making. . . . We used to be told that painting shouldn’t compete with literature. Well, perhaps not in its initial stages. Or, rather, the literary element should not obtrude itself till it has taken the right shape. But when form and content are one, what a heavenly bonus this kind of human revelation can be.”

The first of the two poems below was written and put to music by Leonard Cohen, a Canadian poet and singer and the son of a rabbi. Many of his earlier verses and songs (see the post of September 18) are inspired by the Scriptures.


The door it opened slowly,
my father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
his blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I've had a vision
and you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told.”

So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.
Well, the trees they got much smaller,
the lake a lady's mirror,
we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
but it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
he looked once behind his shoulder,
he knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain
and my father's hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now,
forgive me if I inquire,
“Just according to whose plan?”
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
man of peace or man of war,
the peacock spreads his fan.

~ Leonard Cohen, born 1934, Canadian poet, novelist, singer, and songwriter

To listen to Leonard Cohen perform this song, click on to this link (you may have to cut and paste):

The second poem is inspired by Rembrandt’s painting. It provides an additional explanation for this story — the Christian view that this thwarted sacrifice of an only son prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, the Son of God, on the Cross at Cavalry.


He really meant to do it.
All it took was an angel’s merest touch
to stop him, but the boy’s hands
were tied, the father’s fingers
wrapped around his jaw
(perhaps to smother him — one paltry act
of mercy before the fatal slice?).

What kind of God would require
such appalling fidelity?
What kind of father could bear
to imagine the blade
leaving its trail of red
in the tender skin of a throat
no beard has covered?

What would it take?

What must be the magnitude
of a love that would go this far?
The look in Abraham’s eye
is crazed. The angel’s message
relieves him (though all his life
some madness will haunt him,
and Sarah will follow his steps
with darkened eyes).

You don’t have to do this
any more. Another father
will take your place
Another son will be led to slaughter.
The promise will be fulfilled,
Israel’s seed will be planted.
Let him grow old and die.

~ Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, born 1949, American poet and essayist, from Drawn to the Light: Poems on Rembrandt's Religious Paintings

Saturday, October 23, 2010

American Gothic

(American Gothic, 1930, by Grant Wood,
1891-1942, American painter)

Some facts about this painting that people might not know: this is a portrait meant to be of a father and his grown-up daughter, not his wife, posed by the artist’s sister and his dentist; and the word “Gothic” in the title refers to the shape of the window behind them at the top floor of this Gothic Revival cottage.

Wood did not intend this painting as a satire. “I endeavored to paint these people as they existed for me in the life I knew,” he wrote in 1941.


Just outside the frame
there has to be a dog
chickens, cows and hay

and a smokehouse
where a ham in hickory
is also being preserved

Here for all time
the borders of the Gothic window
anticipate the ribs

of the house
the tines of the pitchfork
repeat the triumph

of his overalls
and front and center
the long faces, the sober lips

above the upright spines
of this couple
arrested in the name of art

These two
by now
the sun this high

ought to be
in mortal time
about their businesses

Instead they linger here
within the patient fabric
of the lives they wove

he asking the artist silently
how much longer
and worrying about the crops

she no less concerned about the crops
but more to the point just now
whether she remembered

to turn off the stove.

~ John Stone (1936-2008), American poet and physician

Friday, October 22, 2010

Number 1 by Jackson Pollock (1948)

(Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956, American
Expressionist painter)

Jackson Pollock is an artist who confounds us with his work. We don’t understand it. “Paint drippings,” some call it. “That’s not art,” others say. “Anyone can do it.”

Pollock once said that “the strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”


No name but a number.
Trickles and valleys of paint
Devise this maze
Into a game of Monopoly
Without any bank. Into
A linoleum on the floor
In a dream. Into
Murals inside of the mind.
No similes here. Nothing
But paint. Such purity
Taxes the poem that speaks
Still of something in a place
Or at a time.
How to realize his question
Let alone his answer?

~ Nancy Sullivan, American poet

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The New Colossus

(The Great Bartholdi Statue: Liberty
Enlightening the World
, a lithograph
published in 1883 by Currier & Ives,
three years before the statue was erected)

This poem and this statue are making a repeat performance on our blog. They had first appeared on July 14 and 15 to celebrate the American spirit.

They are here today as the most famous example of
ekphrasis, a literary commentary on a work of art. So profound was the effect of the poem that it transformed the meaning of the statue itself and thus changed history and demography across the world.

Erected in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was created by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) to honor the friendship between America and France on the occasion of America’s centennial. In 1883, before the statue found its home on an island just off New York City, Emma Lazarus, an American poet, was inspired to write a sonnet by pictures she saw of this grand work of art. A bronze plaque with the words of her verse was attached to the inner walls of the base of the statue in 1903.

At first, the meaning of the statue reflected its name, Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World: its beam of light reached out to inspire liberty across the earth. After the poem was published, there was an important added symbolism, of welcome: the light of the torch beckoned to America’s shores “the huddled masses yearning to be free.”


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

~ Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), American poet

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

River Song

(Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old
Theme, 1939
by Joseph Stella, 1877-1946,
Italian-born American Futurist painter)

Over the years, Joseph Stella made quite a few paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was fascinated by the engineering masterpiece of steel-wire suspension spanning the East River. The bridge, he wrote, is “the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America.”

Built between 1869 and 1883, the bridge joined the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Some have likened this man-made icon to the Eiffel Tower. Stella, however, brings out the image of the cathedral, with suggestions of the stained glass windows, arches, and flying buttresses of the Gothic cathedral. In his view, the power of modern industry would replace the influence of the Church.

Inspired by the painting, a contemporary poet has written this poem:


Crossing late is best,
The bridge strung
over the water
like a huge harp.
Sun caught
in the black strings
forms one pure note —
falling as we rise,
reach out,
strain to hear
the perfect sound
that must be fading
just above our heads.

~ Warren Woessner, born 1944, American poet

Stella was not the only artist to gaze upon the bridge and be reminded of the towering medieval cathedral. The American poet Hart Crane (1899-1932) made use of words that echoed the sacred.


O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry, —

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path — condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Word

(That Red One by Arthur Dove, 1880-1944, American
Modernist painter)

Arthur Dove was one of the first American abstract artists. He worked in oils and pastels and watercolors and also created collages and assemblages. He came to influence Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), famous for her canvases filled with the landscape of one large flower. She once said that “the way you see nature depends on whatever has influenced your way of seeing . . . I think it was Arthur Dove who affected my start, who helped me to find something of my own.”

Like O’Keefe, Dove created images representing the essential elements of nature. But his art was clearly more abstract than hers. “I would like,” he said, “to make something that is real in itself that does not remind anyone of any other things, and that does not have to be explained like the letter A, for instance.”

What is the poet to do? He looks at the image above and responds with a clever classroom exercise that ends with a pun.


Give me I said to those round
young faces a round word
and they looked at me
fully puzzled until finally
several cried What do you mean?

I mean I said round round
you know about round
and Oh yes they said but
give us examples!

Okay I said let’s have a
square word
square maybe
will lead us to round.

And they groaned
they groaned and they frowned
every one except one
little voice way in the back said

~ Gary Gildner, American poet and novelist, from Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mule Team and Poster

(Mule Team and Poster, 1936 by Walker Evans, 1903-1975,
photographer and writer)

Walker Evans was a photographer who took both realistic and abstract pictures of American life as he went from city to town to rural communities and farms.

During the Great Depression, he worked for the federal Farm Security Administration in the South. In the summer of 1936, he recorded the lives of three cotton sharecropping families. (Those photographs, together with words by James Agee, were published in 1941 to great acclaim in a book entitled
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Later that year, he took this picture in Demopolis, Alabama, of two mules standing in front of a poster left over from a show from New Orleans that had come to town two months before.

Donald Justice’s poem continues the story.


Two mules stand waiting in from of the brick wall of a warehouse,
hitched to a shabby flatbed wagon.
Its spoked wheels resemble crude wooden flowers
pulled recently from a deep and stubborn mud.

The rains have passed over for now
and the sun is back,
Invisible, but everywhere present,
and of a special brightness, like God.

The way the poster for the traveling show
still clings to its section of the wall,
It looks as though a huge door stood open
or a terrible flap of brain had been pealed back, revealing

Someone’s idea of heaven:
seven dancing-girls, caught on the upkick,
All in fringed dresses and bobbed hair.
One wears a Spanish comb and has an escort . . .

Meanwhile the mules crunch patiently the few cornshucks
someone has thoughtfully scattered for them.
The poster is torn in places, slightly crumpled;
a few bricks, here and there, show through.

And a long shadow —
the last shade perhaps in all of Alabama —
Stretches beneath the wagon, crookedly,
like a great scythe laid down there and forgotten.

~ Donald Justice (1925-2004), American poet

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dedication to Mary Campbell

(Horse and Train by Alex Colville, born 1920, Canadian
Magic Realist painter)

This most unusual painting is a widely recognized image in Canada.

It was sparked by two incongruous lines in a poem written by a South African poet in 1949 in honor of his wife. The rather old-fashioned poem seems to be an exhortation to examine critically the traditions we live by before accepting them as guides to follow.

The painting, on the other hand, presents a surreal scenario of choices, for the horse and for the engineer in control of the train.


Against a regiment I oppose a brain
And a dark horse against an armored train.

~ Roy Campbell (1901-1957), Anglo-African poet

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Great Figure

(The Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Demuth, 1883-1935,
American artist)

William Carlos Williams is well-known for his many poems that comment on works of art, especially the paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

There was one instance when the direction went the other way: a painter responded to one of Williams’ poems.

“Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic,” Williams wrote in his
Autobiography, “I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.”

The artist Charles Demuth created a watercolor inspired by Williams’ poem. With its linear flashes of color and the movement of the numbers, the image does suggest the energy of the fire truck that raced by that day. Demuth’s intention, however, was to produce an abstract tribute to the poet. Note the letters spelling out “BILL” near the top left corner and a faint “CARLOS” under the top horizontal line of the largest number 5, and close to the bottom, in very small letters, the initials of both the artist and the poet.


Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

~ William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American poet and practicing physician

Friday, October 15, 2010

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

(Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
by Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968, French

This painting by the French avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp created a great scandal the first two times it was exhibited.

The image violated the classical Greek ideal of the nude. “A nude never descends the stairs — a nude reclines,” declared Duchamp’s two brothers, who then removed the painting from a Paris show in 1912. The
New York Times art critic, writing about its presence in a New York show in 1913, ridiculed it as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

One American art magazine even offered a prize to the first person who could point out the nude.

Times do change.

The painting is of a nude indeed, taking five steps down the stairs, but it is composed of cones, cubes, and cylinders layered on top of each other to produce an image of kinetic cubism, of time entering space. In this work, Duchamp was influenced by the stop-motion work of photographers like the French Étienne-Jules Marey and the English Earweard Muybridge.

(Motion by Étienne-Jules Marey, 1830-1904, French
scientist and chronophotographer)

The poet X. J. Kennedy took up the challenge of that art magazine — he has found the nude in this painting.


Toe after toe, a snowing flesh,
a gold of lemon, root and rind,
she sifts in sunlight down the stairs
with nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister
a constant thresh of thigh on thigh;
her lips imprint the swinging air
that parts to let her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears
her slow descent like a long cape
and pausing on the final stair,
collects her motions into shape.

~ X. J. Kennedy, born 1929, American poet, translator, and editor

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Great Pine

(The Great Pine by Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906, French
Post-Impressionist painter)

William Blake is not the only artist who brought his poems to life with his own illustrations.

In 1858, Paul Cézanne wrote to a friend, the writer Émile Zola, about a memory from his youth:

“Do you remember the pine on the bank of the Arc, with its hairy head projecting above the abyss at its foot? This pine which protected our bodies with its foliage from the heat of the sun, oh! may the gods preserve it from the woodman’s baleful axe!”

Five years later, Cézanne composed a short verse about the same tree. And in the 1880's, he painted at least three images that followed up on this verse, two in watercolor and the one above in oils.


The tree shaken by the fury of the winds
Stirs its stripped branches in the air,
An immediate cadaver that the mistral* swings.

(*mistral - cold northern wind that blows in the French Mediterranean region)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Tyger

(The Tyger, written and illustrated by
William Blake, 1757-1827, English poet,
painter, engraver, and mystic visionary)

“The Tyger” may be Blake’s most famous verse. It was published in Songs of Experience, the second of his two books “shewing the two contrary states of the human soul.”

Blake uses the more archaic spelling for this animal, perhaps to emphasize the wild and exotic nature of a creature that was largely unknown to the people of the British Isles at the time.

What are we to make of the fact, he asks rhetorically, that the Creator of the peaceful lamb also made this fearsome beast? Twice Blake refers to a “fearful symmetry.” We see a physical symmetry in the tiger’s eyes, limbs, and stripes. But that phrase also points to a possible response to his two poems. We carry within us two natures, that of the meek and mild lamb and that of the violent, frightening tiger.


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Lamb

(The Lamb, written and illustrated by
William Blake, 1757-1827, English poet,
painter, engraver, and mystic visionary)

Up to now, each of the poems and images this month has involved two artists, a poet and a painter. Today’s poem, however, is an example of ekphrasis in which the writer is also the creator of the image.

William Blake was a poet and engraver who produced his own collections of poems with complementary illustrations that he engraved and then watercolored by hand.

“The Lamb” belongs to
Songs of Innocence, the first of two books “shewing the two contrary states of the human soul.”

With his rhetorical questions, the poet suggests that the gentle character of the lamb reflects the nature of its Creator, and we too, as God’s children, share that quality. The words and imagery echo the Christian tradition of Christ, God made man, the Lamb of God.


Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb.
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Monday, October 11, 2010

On a Windy Wash Day Morn

(Wash Day, 1945 by Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma”
Moses, 1860-1961, American painter)

Grandma Moses began her career as a painter when she was eighty years old. For the next twenty-one years, she had great success as a popular folk artist of traditional American themes like country fairs, maple-sugaring, quilting bees, and Thanksgiving turkey-hunts.

“I like to paint old-time things, historical landmarks of long ago, bridges, mills, and hostelries,” she once said. “Those old-time homes, there are a few left, and they are going fast. I do them all from memory, most of them are daydreams, as it were.”

The painting Wash Day was inspired by the following poem which she had memorized as a schoolgirl:

On Monday was our washing day,
and while the clothes were drying,
a wind came suddenly through the line
and set them all a-flying.
I saw the shirts and petticoats
go flying off like witches.
I lost (oh bitterly I wept),
I lost my Sunday breeches.
I saw them flying through the air,
alas too late to save them.
A hole was in their ample part,
as if an imp had worn them.

~ Author unknown

Grandma Moses’ painting, in turn, inspired the poem below:


Soaked and scrubbed in a round tin tub
with homemade soap
up and down the ribs of a wooden washboard
by hands rubbed red & raw
on a windy wash day morn.

Stiffened with starch, squeezed
and wrung to a twisted laundry rope
then hung on lines to flap
back and forth and snap dry
on a windy wash day morn.

Laid on the lawn like paper cutouts
clean shirts and sheets, towels and skirts
smelling of sun and clouds and wind
wait to be ironed and worn and dirtied
again for another wash day morn.

~ Brenda Seabrooke, born 1941, American poet and novelist

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lessons from a Painting by Rothko

(Untitled, 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1903-1970,
American painter)

Mark Rothko is best known for his abstract paintings of horizontal bands of color stacked vertically up a rectangular canvas. “Often the divisions and intervals between them suggest a horizon or a cloud-bank, thus indirectly locating the image in the domain of landscape,” wrote the art critic Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New.

“This format enabled him to eliminate nearly everything from his work except the spatial suggestions and emotive power of his color, and the breathing intensity of the surfaces, which he built up in the most concentrated way, staining the canvas like watercolor paper and then scumbling it with repeated skins of overpainting, so that . . . one seems to be peering into the depths of mist and water, lit from within.”

The poet was inspired to follow the artist’s technique of repeated overpainting and wrote her poem as a pantoum, or pantum — a verse form composed of quatrains with internal rhyming and the repetition of lines according to an established pattern.


How would you paint a poem?
Prepare the canvas carefully
With tiers of misty rectangles
Stacked secrets waiting to be told.

Prepare the canvas carefully
With shallow pools of color
Stacked secrets waiting to be told
Messages from some unknown place.

With shallow pools of color
Thin layers of gauze float over the canvas
Messages from some unknown place
Where soft shapes expand above a glow.

Thin layers of gauze float over the canvas
With tiers of misty rectangles
Where soft shapes expand above a glow.
How would you paint a poem?

~ Bobbi Katz, born 1933, American poet

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Don’t Let That Horse Eat That Violin

(The Equestrienne by Marc Chagall, 1887-1985,
Russian-French artist)

This painting depicts a romantic tale about love, as do many of Chagall’s works. The poet, however, is focused not on the young couple but on the way this painting came about.

(If you look carefully, you’ll note that Ferlinghetti makes a small error. The violin is actually under the horse’s chin. It’s a bouquet of flowers that’s in its mouth. But no matter.)


Don’t let that horse
eat that violin

cried Chagall’s mother

But he
kept right on

And became famous

And kept on painting
The Horse With Violin In Mouth

And when he finally finished it
he jumped up upon the horse
and rode away
waving the violin

And then with a low bow gave it
to the first naked nude he ran across

And there were no strings

~ Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born 1919, American poet, painter, and publisher

Friday, October 8, 2010

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School: Detroit, 1942

(Self-Portrait: Degas Lifting His Cap by Edgar
Degas, 1834-1917, French painter, sculptor, and

In April 1942, sitting in Monsieur Degas’s class in Detroit, fourteen-year-old Philip Levine learned that the possibilities of the imagination are endless. Later that year, he discovered his calling:

“That autumn I found poetry. After dark, ambling the deserted streets, I would speak to the moon and stars about the emotional revolution that was raging within me, and, true to their natures, the moon and the stars would not answer. My most intimate poems were summoned by the promise of rain in the air or the odors of its aftermath. Night after night I spun and respun these poems — if poems they were — none of which I ever committed to the page. I was learning to love solitude and to discover the power of my voice to deprive it of terror.” (from his memoirs,
The Bread of Time)


He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward, and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, “What have I done?”
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, “You’ve broken a piece
of chalk.” M. Degas did not smile.
“What have I done?” he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks,
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. “M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle.” Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. “It is possible,”
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
“that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn.” I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I’d be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty-one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, “You’ve begun
to separate the dark from the dark.”
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and
I knew this could go on forever.

~ Philip Levine, born 1928, American poet

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Starry Night

(Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, Dutch
Post-Impressionist painter)

Van Gogh painted this scene from the window of his room in the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy thirteen months before his death.

At least three poets have written about this most familiar image. Each speaks from a different point of view. All empathize with the artist’s anguish.

Anne Sexton puts herself in the mind of the artist. Later, she would make the same tragic decision as van Gogh, and take her own life. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, on the other hand, stands outside the asylum and looks up at the celestial wonders. Don McLean writes an elegiac tribute to the artist. He put the verses to music, creating a hit song across the world.

To listen to McLean’s performance, accompanied by a slide show of van Gogh's paintings, click on this link (you may have to cut and paste it):


“That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.”
~ Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

~ Anne Sexton (1928-1974), American poet


What laughter booms across the night sky
from the bellies of heavenly beings? Few hear it,
but sometimes the breath of heaven curls like a bard’s beard
and what has only twinkled begins to beat and throb.

Behind it all a drumbeat calls over the mountains.
The villagers think it’s thunder, those who are not asleep.
Only a few remain awake to see the starry, starry night
and witness what they can barely imagine how to tell.

Some nights the roar breaks the silence. One was there
when it happened, and saw, and tried to tell the secret,
and died young. How much of life he gave for this
we cannot know. We know only that something precious
as nard* was poured out at the foot of these hills,
the blue, the yellow bought with solitary tears.

~ Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, born 1949, American poet and essayist

(*nard - costly aromatic balsam)


Starry, starry night,
Paint your palette blue and gray,
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.
Shadows on the hills,
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills,
In colors on the snowy linen land.

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen,
They did not know how,
Perhaps they’ll listen now.

Starry, starry night,
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of China blue.
Colors changing hue,
Morning fields of amber grain,
Weathered faces lined in pain,
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen,
They did not know how,
Perhaps they'll listen now.

For they could not love you,
But still your love was true,
And when no hope was left in sight,
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

Starry, starry night,
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget.
Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes,
The silver thorn, the bloody rose
lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.

And now I think I know what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
They’re not listening still,
Perhaps they never will.

~ Don McLean, born 1945, American singer and songwriter

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why I Am Not a Painter

(Sardines by Michael Goldberg, 1924-2007,
American Expressionist painter)

Frank O’Hara was a “poet among painters,” surrounded by a large circle of New York artists. In addition to his work as a poet, he was an art critic and essayist and curator of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.

While O’Hara may not have been a painter in oils, the poem below shows that he had the skill and technique to create an Expressionist image in words.


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.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

~ Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), American poet

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Scream

(The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1863-1944,
Norwegian artist)

Edvard Munch made three versions of this “infinite scream passing through nature,” as he described it in his diary; that’s how the image has been understood since its creation about a hundred years ago.

But the interpretation of any symbol can be completely transformed in unexpected ways. To a generation of young filmgoers, this painting has been tamed and now leaves a much more benign and comedic impression, of the young Macaulay Culkin accidentally left
Home Alone.

Gűnter Kunert suffered through both totalitarianisms that ravaged his native eastern Germany in the twentieth century. In his poem, he hews to the original meaning of the image.


The scream renowned and polyglot
up close to the viewer, not a man,
not a woman, just
pure human essence, an expression
of archaic horror.
Meanwhile we are walking
in the background side by side
undeterred, as far as we could tell,
by the painter’s
view of our own character.

~ Gűnter Kunert, born 1929, German poet, essayist, and artist, from a collection of poems commissioned by Jan Greenberg, Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from around the World

Monday, October 4, 2010

If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso

(Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso,
1881-1973, Spanish artist)

In Cubist art, which began with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, an object is examined from all sides, to present an abstraction of the essence of the object rather than a flat two-dimensional view of the object.

Some years after Picasso gave Gertrude Stein this portrait, with her face painted in the Cubist style he was following at the time, Stein responded in kind with what could be described as a Cubist portrait of her own, but in words.

Stein’s poems definitely benefit from being read out loud. To listen to a reading by Stein herself, accompanied by a video of Picasso's paintings, go here (you may have to cut and paste):


If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.
Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.
If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.
Not now.
And now.
Exactly as as kings.
Feeling full for it.
Exactitude as kings.
So to beseech you as full as for it.
Exactly or as kings.
Shutters shut and open so do queens. Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.
Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because.
Now actively repeat it all, now actively repeat it all, now actively repeat it all.
Have hold and hear, actively repeat it all.
I judge judge.
As a resemblance to him.
Who comes first. Napoleon the first.
Who comes too coming coming too, who goes there, as they go they share, who shares all, all is as all as as yet or as yet.
Now to date now to date. Now and now and date and the date.
Who came first Napoleon at first. Who came first Napoleon the first. Who came first, Napoleon first.
Exactly do they do.
First exactly.
Exactly do they do too.
First exactly.
And first exactly.
Exactly do they do.
And first exactly and exactly.
And do they do.
At first exactly first exactly do they do.
The first exactly.
And do they do the first exactly.
At first exactly.
First as exactly.
At first as exactly.
As presently.
As as presently.
He he he he and he and he and and he and he and he and and as and as he and as he and he. He is and as he is, and as he is and he is, he is and as he and he and as he is and he and he and and he and he.
Can curls rob can curls quote, quotable.
As presently.
As exactitude.
As trains.
Has trains.
Has trains.
As trains.
As trains.
As proportions as presently.
Father and farther.
Was the king or room.
Farther and whether.
Was there was there what was there was there but was there was there there was there.
Whether and in there.
As even say so.
I land.
I land.
The land.
The land.
The land.
I land.
I land.
I land.
I land.
As a so.
They cannot.
A note.
They cannot.
A float.
They cannot.
They dote.
They cannot.
They as denote.
Miracles play.
Play fairly.
Play fairly well.
A well.
As well.
As or as presently.
Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.

~ Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), American writer and poet

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Finishing Touches to a Portrait

(Self-Portrait with a Cap, Open-Mouthed, 1630, one of
almost 90 self-portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669,
Dutch painter, printmaker, and draughtsman)

This poem is not strictly an example of exphrasis because it does not refer to any specific artist or portrait. Its details, however, help us to understand portraiture — the mysterious way an artist captures on canvas or paper the core of a person’s spirit and character.


The artist bends to the canvas
to see what is to be seen
close by, withdraws to a distance,
brushes bouqueted in fist.
The head turns this way, that,
knowledge sweet in the eyes.
Wriggling paint on the palette
predicts the brightness
with which she extols the
dejected figure, making
identity more voluble.
With brushtip dares to touch
already created eyes and mouth.
She paints at arm’s length,
wrist-length, finger-length,
and then retires to see
what must be seen from a distance.
Surely with the sight
of more than two eyes,
the agility of more
than ten fingers.

~ Etta Blum (1908-1981), American poet, writer, and translator of Yiddish

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Study of the Object

(Transcription of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian
by his brother George)

The verses below, from Zbigniew Herbert’s Study of the Object, could be read as a complement to this idea proposed by Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.


The most beautiful is the object
which does not exist

it does not serve to carry water
or to preserve the ashes of a hero

it was not cradled by Antigone
nor was a rat drowned in it

from every side
which means
hardly anticipated

the hairs
of all its tines
in one stream of light

can take away the object
which does not exist

~ Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), Polish poet

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ode on a Grecian Urn

(Sketch by Keats of a vase by Sosibios
the Athenian)

(This month, the poems are part of an on-going conversation among poets and painters. Many of the verses are examples of ekphrasis or literary commentary on a visual work of art.)

We begin with one of the most popular and well-known poems about a work of art. The vessel Keats is describing is most certainly a composite he created of real and imagined images.

As Keats is examining an urn decorated with scenes and figures, he sees the perfection of beauty captured permanently in art. Time stands still. Nothing will change. But that’s the rub. Is such unchangeable perfection more desirable than the imperfect transitory experiences of life?


Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

~ John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic poet