Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Poetry and visual art

Today is sunny and cool, but will get hot later. I welcome the nice weather, feel the call to the beach. No beach for me today though. I am driving to Portland to take my eldest daughter to a bus/train to head off to University of VA where she will do some scholarly work at Monticello. She's wonderful at this history thing, a real treasure to her students. Kudos to her for the grants she is working under this summer (this is her second). Last summer she had a grant to retrace a portion of the Underground Railway. Amazing.

It is 7 AM here and my hubby just headed off to golf, daughter still snoozing. For me, poetry is on my mind. Poetry and visual art. Last night was Art Walk/Open Gallery Night in Rockland. I look forward to these Fridays, the chance to stroll Main Street and see what others do with their hands, how their own visions or demons create art. Looking at paintings, sculptures, etc gets my engine revving. I find myself making notes (thanks to iPhone I can do this without a notebook!) for poems I want to write. No exception last night. I've got a few ideas buzzing.

So what about ekphrastic writing? I'm surely not the first poet to mine ideas or become inspired via someone else's art. Look at W.H. Auden's famous poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, after Breughel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In the poem, Auden comments on what he sees (literally) and adds his interpretation. He is stirred enough by the painting that he has something to share about it that goes beyond mere description. He begins the poem with a judgement call about art:

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

Opening the poem this way defies mere art critique and gets the reader in immediately. We are challenged to read onward to find out more. This is what poetry does anyway, but when it connects to visual art, we can make so much more of both the visual and the written. Auden's whole first stanza is the set piece to the second wherein he makes his point about the human position via Breughel's painting. He gets right to it: In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away. Then ends with the dramatic, but understated: ... 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.

Throughout the poem, Auden fills in details of the painting, without simply admitting "these are the things I see." He upholds his position of qualifying and quantifying suffering. He shows the details by using the various images in Breughel's painting in his poem as details to underscore his "take" on anonymous ignorance.

When I write to art (love doing this), I try to emulate Auden and others on whose strong poetic shoulders I stand. I do not want to simply describe, to give my readers the experience I had when encountering the art. I want to demonstrate the emotional impact the art had on me and put on paper the human connections that occurred to me at the gut level. My poem, The Artist Has Laid Down His Brush and is Done, is an example of what I mean. On the day of Andrew Wyeth's death (my birthday!) I went to sign the condolence book at the Farnsworth Art Museum here in Rockland. I sat before a painting of his that I had never seen before (or that I had not noticed deeply before) and got that prickle on the nape of my neck that tells me something profound is happening. I took out my trusty notebook and began to compose a poem. The words rang in my head like a funeral bell. I could FEEL the suffering his widow must have been feeling. I knew at a gut level the emptiness she was living at that moment, the long days ahead with his absence. It was not enough to recreate the painting in words. I had to recreate the emptiness, the quiet, the stillness of his brushes gone to dry forever.

The same scenes are never to be the same again without his careful eye
The conch will go silent, the chair unmoved and dusty.
Somehow a shaft of sudden sun slanting the floor won't be
the same kind of light he saw. Even the dog will not snore the same.

To be clear, there is no dog in the painting. But when I felt the emptiness of the chair, the conch, I could extrapolate, pull details of grief into the poem. This is the beauty of poetry. This is the beauty of connection that poetry affords both writer and reader.

When I write to art, I allow myself to be captivated by image. I then try to go deep into imaginary worlds where those images tell me a story that I may or may not find in the visual art I have experienced. If possible I avoid looking at the title the artist has given his/her work. I like to go in clean when I begin. More often than not, and surprising me for sure, the title is fairly close to the place I inhabit in the poem. A little chilling sometimes actually, but thrilling along with chilling.

So today's advice/challenge:

Find a piece of visual art and sit with it, look at it. Take as long as you like until you are stirred by it. Then make copious notes. Then write. You will NOT be disappointed.

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