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 …

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