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Worth a Thousand Words?

On the Laws of the Poetic Art (The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1992) Bollingen Series XXXV: 41

by Anthony Hecht
Princeton University Press, 204 pp., $24.95

When John Ashbery entitles a poem of his about the Muse “And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name,” he is quoting a phrase from Horace that means “as painting is, so is poetry.” But the reality is not quite so straightforward, and the relations among the arts—visual, musical, linguistic—are both vexing and fascinating. Does all art aspire to the condition of music, as Walter Pater said? Can a bas-relief tell a tale “more sweetly” than rhyme, as Keats feared? Is it helpful, in discussing a work of art, to use crossover language—the “rhythm” of a painting, the “legato” of a poet’s line, the “narrative” of a sonata—or are these metaphorical borrowings merely distractions? Does it make sense to take a term originating in art history, such as “Baroque,” and apply it to Milton? Such questions continue to preoccupy both artists and critics: artists because they are eager to poach on any fertile territory for their material, and critics not only because they are obliged to find new ways to talk about aesthetic ventures, but also because they have firm, indeed almost religious, convictions about the nature of the art they discuss.

Because new art is always being created, the relations among the arts are always in flux, and always under interrogation. The most accessible of the relations between poetry and another art is, as Horace’s analogy says, that between poetry and painting. Poetry and representational painting are openly thematic in a way that music and abstract painting are not. The subject offers an opening for the critic as well as for the artist; and from the visible and discussable theme (of the painting, of the poem) one can proceed to more refined discussions of the visual media (easel painting, etching, etc.) as they might correspond to the language and particular forms of poetry.

This may seem a rather academic concern until one comes upon the problem of the “sister arts” in reading a given poem or poet. In my own experience, reading Keats has meant confronting his feeling before the Elgin marbles (“My spirit is too weak”) and asking what it was about the marbles that so daunted him; or wondering why he appeared to value the Urn’s narrative above his own rhyme; or explaining why the nightingale’s song seemed to him comparable to “the viewless wings of Poesy,” yet flawed, in comparison to poetry, by its deceptive abstraction from human suffering. To read Wallace Stevens is to notice his many poems with painting titles (“Study of Two Pears,” “Landscape with Boat,” “Another Weeping Woman”), and to study what the painters (Manet, Klee, Picasso) he absorbed so intensely meant to his art. To read Howard Nemerov is to ask why his most central theoretical poem is called “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar’s House”; to read John Ashbery entails comparing his “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to the painting of that name by Parmigianino. Why, for instance, did Ashbery want to address Parmigianino (and as “Francesco,” at that) directly across the gulf of time? Why did Ashbery introduce fragments of art-historical writing into his poem?

The consonance of the High Renaissance
Is present, though distorted by the mirror.
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn’t yours….

A poet may treat a painting itself, or his own response to the painting, or the painter’s putative intentions in creating the work. Each of these choices asks us to think historically: what did the eighteenth-century poet want to find in a painting, by contrast to the twentieth-century poet? And each choice is also an index to the poet’s temperament: why is Auden’s version of Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus so different from William Carlos Williams’s?

The relation between poetry and painting is most elusive when the work of art evoked in the poem in fact never existed. Spenser frequently describes paintings and tapestries in Faery Land; by definition these—though drawing on real types—do not exist. And the archetype of all such descriptions—Homer’s account of the shield of Achilles—creates, in minute detail, a shield Homer never saw. Why is poetry’s need for visual detail so strong that if it lacks a real image before it, it will create an imaginary image on which to dwell?

There are two chief reasons why poets love the stimulus to description offered by a work of art. First, description is par excellence a means of multiplying words. Any verbal description is potentially unlimited, and the more slender the point d’appui on which the fantasy-construct of words is raised, the more magnificent and self-sustaining (as in Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait”) is the effect created. On the other hand, a visual image can also be a challenge to the usual concision of lyric. The richer the original artwork, the greater praise accrues to the author who can convey its power with compression and point—as in, for instance, the sestet of Rossetti’s sonnet on da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks:

Mother of grace, the pass is difficult,
Keen as these rocks, and the be- wildered souls
Throng it like echoes, blindly shuddering through.
Thy name, O Lord, each spirit’s voice extols,
Whose peace abides in the dark avenue
Amid the bitterness of things occult.

These and other such considerations are raised by the poets Anthony Hecht and John Hollander in recent books. Hecht’s On the Laws of the Poetic Art was delivered as the A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in 1992, and its six chapters consider the interrelations of the arts and some topics common to both painting and poetry. But Hecht, addressing the general audience attending events at the National Gallery, goes on to take up, in addition to aesthetic questions, the current problems of government censorship and of niggardly public attitudes toward the support of the arts. Hollander’s The Gazer’s Spirit—the title comes from Shelley’s “On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery”—arose out of a course he has given at Yale. After a general introduction, Hollander presents forty-eight mini-chapters, each of which pairs a painting (or other artwork) with a poem (or poems) responding to it in the tradition technically known as ecphrasis, the verbal description of a work of art.

Hollander’s book is a learned one; even someone well-acquainted with the history of lyric will come across many unknown poems in his pages, and I suspect that even art historians will not know all the works—some of them as unfamiliar as Renold Elstrack’s engraved title page of Sir Walter Ralegh’s History of the World—that are reproduced in the eight color plates and seventy halftones. The poems gain immensely from being read along with the visual images that provoked them. And Hollander, a gifted guide to each combination of poem and painting, is at his most original in his commentary on half-forgotten poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne; these Victorian poets are resurrected by the force of his attention to them and his understanding of their receptivity to painted images. When Hollander writes on Swinburne’s “Before the Mirror,” a poem written about Whistler’s Symphony in White no. 2: The Little White Girl (see picture on page 40), he remarks on how the poem

moves inside the girl’s reveries to the traces of the past that must inevitably emerge from [the mirror’s] depths….

…From being the engine of narcissistic contemplation, the mirror has become that of the seer of truths beyond the gazer’s own beauty, like the mirror of the Lady of Shalott, like the glass of art itself.

Still, the poems chosen reflect, perhaps too often, Hollander’s attachment to poetic ingenuity; and the more recent poets included (Daryl Hine, Richard Howard, J.D. McClatchy, David Ferry, Vicki Hearne, Rosanna Warren, and Rachel Hadas) tend to be ones with ties of acquaintance with Hollander rather than ones fully representative of the contemporary poets who have written on works of art. I, for one, miss (to name only a few well-established poets) Charles Wright, Dave Smith, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, and Rita Dove—all of whom have done arresting poems of this type. No doubt other reviewers would point to other absences.

But what is it like to read Hollander? Each of his commentaries has a basic shape: first, he describes and situates the work of art, and quotes, perhaps, some art-historical commentary on it; he then describes the poem written about it, and closes with a graceful connecting of the two. His description of Vicki Hearne writing on Paul Gauguin’s Le Cheval blanc is typical: after describing the painting and the poem, Hollander shows how Hearne’s poem links the viewer, the painter’s brush, and the horse

in a strange figure of mirroring, seeing “The head of the white horse swing/Downward through air, toward water” and Gauguin’s brush bending as if to drink of the gazing poet’s language. It is not merely that the poet asks the painting to speak up: here, the painted figure demands it of the poet.

I found it a pleasure to live for a while inside Hollander’s mind: it has—in addition to its analytic power and wide learning—a poet’s imagination. His taste is not always mine; there is more of the Baroque poet Giambattista Marino here than I can take. Nor can I always share Hollander’s judgments of some of the contemporary poems he describes as “wonderful” or “beautiful” or “remarkable.” But Hollander has the literary historian’s appetite for anything that will help answer his central questions: What do poets see in paintings, and how does poetry discover itself, by similarity and difference, in painting?

Hollander has a fanciful wit, too, and playing with words and pictures appeals to him: he likes acrostics, emblems, puns. When he is discussing Marianne Moore’s “Charity Overcoming Envy,” he cannot help noting that “the final Gordian ‘knot’ punningly echoes the ‘not’ of negation.”

But sometimes Hollander’s idea of the playful is strained. Speaking of the wish of the lay viewer to know who, in actual fact, the person in an Ander Gunn photograph was, he says, “Though the human model…may not be around to answer, Professor Doktor Wasderfallist, the voice of What Is in Fact the Case, will always be available to say, e.g., ‘In fact, this is Mrs. Joe Bloggs.”’ Will anyone be amused by Hollander’s resorting, in the manner of Carlyle, to the cumbersome title and the allegorical Germanic name? Yet Hollander has an eye for what is funny: he reproduces Van Wyck Brooks’s account of the young American painter Benjamin West at the Vatican galleries, as Cardinal Albani takes him to see the Apollo Belvedere:

West was placed before the cabinet in which the Apollo stood… and it was then that he spoke the words, “How like a Mohawk warrior!”

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