Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Poems On Paintings

'The Poet' - Marc Chagall
'Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks' Plutarch once said. Maybe that explains the interconnectedness of these two genres and why there have been so many poems written about paintings throughout the ages and of course, vice-versa, so many paintings inspired by poems.

As I write this I'm just back from a gallery visit, where I have spent a lot of time as a silent spectator, like most visitors, trying to glean what each painting has to say, trying to put words into its mouth so to speak. 

And I'm not the only one. I see that the gallery runs creative writing days where members of the public are invited to come in, notebooks in tow, pick a painting of choice and write about it. Sometimes there are workshops to direct this writing, sometimes it's just a solitary activity. I must admit I'm fascinated by the blending of these two artistic mediums, the putting a voice to the 'silence' of the paintings so to speak.

And I'm not the only one to feel like this. Many writers throughout the decades have taken inspiration from famous paintings and written poems as 'odes' to the painting, verbal narratives to the 'silent story', or penned philosophical and often personal musings on a piece of art dear to them. An 'ekphrastic' poem is the technical name for such a poem. The poet Alfred Corn states in his essay on the history of ekphrastic verse* (You can read more about ekphrastic poetry as a genre: here) that "once the ambition of producing a complete and accurate description is put aside, a poem can provide new aspects for a work of visual art."

Poetry on art does not seek to describe accurately what is there, but to add to the understanding of it. It does indeed provide new aspects for a work of art. It heightens our experience of it and adds dimensions that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. A veritable viewfinder.

'The Lady of Shalott' - John William Waterhouse

From as far back as Homer and Dante, there have been many famous examples of poems written specifically on paintings. As there is also many a painting that has had its origins in a poem, or even a line of a poem. John Waterhouse's painting 'The Lady of Shalott' is a representation of a scene from Tennyson's poem of the same name, as was his 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', inspired by Keats' poem. Indeed there are many painters who have been described as 'poets' and poets who have been described as 'painters'. Marc Chagall and Dylan Thomas are two that spring to mind. And then of course, there are also poets who are painters too (William Blake for one), and painters who are also poets (none other than Michelangelo.) Poet Mark Strand went to the Yale School of Art and Architecture intending to become a painter, until he found poetry and switched to a different course.

It is safe to say that poets who write on art have an affection for it, some are even connoisseurs. It's not as if they're making a random imaginative leap in the dark but rather an informed meditation, even though feeling is foremost in it. Some poets like John Berryman even have had an extensive background in art - making his living as an art critic before becoming a poet. Edward Hirsch, poet and art enthuse, has collected poems and writings - what he calls 'imaginative acts of attention' - on the entire art collection of The Art Institute of Chicago in his book called 'Transforming Vision: Writers on Art'. (You can read the interesting introduction: here)


Perhaps the most famous example of a poem written on a painting is WH Auden's meditation on Breughel's 'The Fall of Icarus'. It provides not only an accompanying narrative to the painting, but a powerful psychological and memorable commentary on human suffering too. Auden has used the painting as proof proper of how the world always goes indifferently on in regards to suffering and death:

         'The Fall of Icarus' - Breughel

Musee des Beaux Arts -W. H. Auden 

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. 

This last line is a verbal echo of what we see in the painting. Auden has amplified the painting's meaning in his poem so much so that it seems almost necessary complementary reading.

American poet William Carlos Williams was a poet very much inspired by art. In fact he has written a whole volume of poetry on Breughel's paintings. He too has written a poem on 'The Fall of Icarus', a poem which in its very structure mimics the composition of the painting. In the painting, the fall of Icarus is not the focal point, it happens on the sidelines, as a footnote almost to the main picture. The mention of Icarus only in the very last line of the poem reflects this defining aspect of the  painting quite astutely:

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus - William Carlos Williams

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

Breughel seems to be a popular artist choice for poets. His 'Hunters in the Snow' painting has also garnered a lot of poetic responses. American poets John Berryman and Wallace Stevens have both written poems on it. (You can read them both here: The Poet Speaks of Art). 

Wallace Stevens was another American poet intensely interested in art. (See: 'The Problem of Painters and Poets' article here). His poem on Picasso's 'The Old Guitarist' is one that shows just how much of a muse a painting can be. It is quite lengthy so I won't post it all here, just an excerpt:

'The Old Guitarist' - Pablo Picasso

The Man With the Blue Guitar - Wallace Stevens
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are...

In this poem the poet imagines the mind and voice of the figure in the painting and takes off from there into a vaulting imaginative meaning of the painting and philosophical reflection on life. Stevens applies a robust imaginative and intellectual take to the painting creating a world from it that can only be briefly glimpsed or guessed at by looking at it. Poems on paintings broaden the horizon for interpretation - reading them you feel your own synapses open up to just what exactly a painting can mean. It is not tethered to any boxed definition, but rather much like a poem, is wonderfully open to immersive speculation.

My favourite poems on paintings  are the ones that seem to say exactly and eloquently what the painting expresses visually. I love Wislawa Szymborska's short take on Vermeer's 'The Milkmaid.' Her quiet language simply but effectively states the grandeur of this painting, emphasizing the point of art's redeeming qualities. It is a poem that places so much importance on the place of art in our lives and one that invites a second look at the painting in question, not to mention a second awed and appreciative look at art in general:

'Vermeer' - Wislawa Szymborska

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

Other poems on paintings are welcome translations of complex art. So many things can be read into abstract and modern art that it can be daunting. I love X.J. Kennedy's description of Marcel DuChamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase.' It helps us see what is there and in such an entertaining way. The language is vivid and precise - 'she sifts in sunlight' - how accurate a description is that of what we visually see? And how about the perfectness of the word 'thresh' to describe the broken planes of lines in the picture?! For me, this poem brings the painting to life, so much so that I can see this 'one-woman waterfall' in flamboyant manner. The poem enlivens what we see with language that provides a 3D quality to the painting. It is a chant which brings its still self to buoyant life:

Nude Descending a Staircase - X. J. Kennedy 

Toe upon 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.

Poets are well up to the task of providing worthy words to a visual masterpiece. Anne Sexton's 'Starry Starry Night', a poem on Van Gogh's famous painting of the same name, is another such example. The night 'boils with eleven stars', it is beast-like, a dragon. This poem is also indicative of how a painting can reflect a personal emotional state. How we can project on a work of art our feelings, and how a work of art can take on our feelings, a permeable acquiescent witness. This particular poem shows how one interpretation of a painting can be so unexpected and we may marvel at how different it may be from our own, the wonder of art reall:

The Starry Night - Anne Sexton

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.
Have you ever seen a painting and wondered however you could express in words the image that accosted you, the light that was rendered so real, the colour that melted into your soul? One of my favourite poems on paintings takes an Edward Hopper painting as inspiration. Hopper of course, was a master at depicting light. The sunlight in his paintings is like a mirror-image, photographically precise, of the real thing. There is nothing else quite like it.  Just how to describe looking at it?! Even as a writer, I falter. But Anne Carson manages quite well in her poem on the painting 'Room in Brooklyn' to evoke its effect:

edward hopper room in brooklyn

Room in Brooklyn - Anne Carson

Along the room
A gradual dazzle
the ceiling
Gives me that
As hours
the wide
Down my afternoon. 

We wonder - what is this 'bluishyellow' feeling exactly? The feeling that is created in the painting of course. One lends expression to the other. Here, as with other poems on paintings, there is a perfect symbiosis state of being.

For me, poems written on paintings elucidate the painting that little bit more and bear witness to its 'silent story' that is etched out in colours and figures, brushstrokes and lines. For the casual art observer like me who often finds it hard to express what effect a painting has or to really peer into its soul, poetry is a helpful guide. Better than a gallery guide or catalogue, a poem can divulge a hidden story to the painting or hit on a personal meaning that resonates greatly with us, the viewer or reader - yes, that's exactly what this painting is about/makes me feel/is saying.  Now I get it!

In other words, a poem opens a secret door to let us into the painting. It draws our notice to the inherent stories woven there. Poems written on paintings offer the reader a verbal expression of the inexpressible feelings emanating from the artwork. They are explanation, realisation and intimation. In some cases they are welcome translation, and in others, imaginative transcendence. In every case, they are illumination. Some paintings I've never felt any great affection for I have looked at in a new light after reading a particular poem on them. In basic terms, poetry can be effective PR for a painting, and vice-versa. That symbiosis again.

What ekphrastic poetry does above all I think is demonstrate how a painting can be harboured so intimately in one's mind and heart. Essentially, how visual art is an ever arresting and affective medium. And how awe and affinity for it can be filtered not just via head-tilts and sighs and acquiring poster-prints, but in words.  For if words are indeed to be put to a painting, to speak its silent story, who better than a poet to do it? Art historians do it through fact and technique, poets do it through imagination.

Art and poetry may seem like two entirely different genres, but ekphrastic poetry begs to differ. Every art touches upon another and in doing so, broadens appreciation mutually. This has certainly been the case for me.

Below are some more poems on paintings to enjoy.
To read more poems on paintings click: here 

~ Siobhán



'Bedroom in Arles' - Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh's Bed - Jane Flanders

is orange,
like Cinderella's coach, like
the sun when he looked it
straight in the eye.

is narrow, he sleeps alone,
tossing between two pillows, 
while it carried him
bumpily to the ball.

is clumsy,
but friendly. A peasant
built the frame; and old wife beat
the mattress till it rose like meringue.

is empty,
morning light pours in
like wine, melody, fragrance,
the memory of happiness.

To Marc Chagall - Paul Éluard

Donkey or cow, cockerel or horse
On to the skin of a violin
A singing man a single bird
An agile dancer with his wife

A couple drenched in their youth

The gold of the grass lead of the sky
Separated by azure flames
Of the health-giving dew
The blood glitters the heart rings

A couple the first reflection

And in a cellar of snow
The opulent vine draws
A face with lunar lips
That never slept at night.

Number 1 - Jackson Pollock

DIGRESSION ON NUMBER 1, 1948 - Frank O' Hara

I am ill today but I am not
too ill. I am not ill at all.
It is a perfect day, warm
for winter, cold for fall.

A fine day for seeing. I see
ceramics, during lunch hour, by
Miro, and I see the sea by Leger;
light, complicated Metzingers
and a rude awakening by Brauner,
a little table by Picasso, pink.

I am tired today but I am not
too tired. I am not tired at all.
There is the Pollock, white, harm
will not fall, his perfect hand

and the many short voyages. They'll
never fence the silver range.
Stars are out and there is sea
enough beneath the glistening earth
to bear me toward the future
which is not so dark. I see.


  1. Funny you should write about this as I've just been talking about it. A picture paints a thousand words. I'd be VERY interested in some poems that can explain modern art, because some of that I just DO NOT get!

  2. Yes, a picture does paint a thousand words - and poets only grasp a few of them! I know, modern art is weird, some of it I like, others I just don't get either! But I admit I like those too, because they're so open to interpretation. Imaginative interpretation. I wrote a poem once on a Picasso painting that opened the whole painting up for me. You should try it!

  3. For me, art and poetry are partners in a dance. When I paint the images rush into my mind, the movement of the brush on the canvas is poetry expressed visually, the comprehension can only be understood in metaphors. Like some poems, modern art cannot be understood, it must be felt.

    1. They are indeed Esther! What a great analogy. They are so deeply entwined. Yes, I agree with that - it must be felt. Understanding comes second to the feeling.


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