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
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!”
Hollander’s praise of earlier poetry can occasionally seem dutiful (or merely comprehensive) rather than aesthetically enthusiastic, while the modern poems he has chosen are sometimes too weak to sustain his admiring commentary. But when he looses himself, for instance, on Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night,” which calls up Dürer’s Melencolia, he ranges back and forth from the engraving to the poem, from Ruskin to Gautier, using the work of the art historian Erwin Panofsky to underpin his findings. A reader who brings all this to “The City of Dreadful Night” will see deeply into the poem.
Hollander’s long introductory essay on ecphrasis (ninety pages of closely packed text) is not in any way bound coherently to the specific examples following it. One can understand and enjoy the chapters making up the body of the book without having read the introduction—and yet surely the function of an introduction is to lead directly to what follows. In his introduction, Hollander distinguishes between poems written about paintings that are imaginary, not real (a practice which he calls “notional ecphrasis”) and “actual ecphrasis,” the practice of writing a poem based on a real painting (or photograph, or monument). Yet “notional ecphrasis” turns out to include, for him, poems that are not about paintings at all, such as Whitman’s “A Prairie Sunset” or Melville’s “The Portent,” or Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”—poems he connects to ecphrasis because they either employ language sometimes used about painting or take up a scene (Zeus and Leda) also depicted in painting. In cases like these, Hollander’s theme becomes deflected or obscured.
Renaissance emblems, too (which are included in the segment on “actual ecphrasis”), do not correspond to the usual idea of ecphrastic work. And, since there are no examples of Renaissance emblems as such in the subsequent chapters, one may wonder what they are doing in the introduction. In truth, the introduction stands as a separate mini-book on many of the connections that have been made between words and images since the Greeks. It is fascinating in its range, but a heavy dose for any reader eager to learn about particular works of art and the poems responding to them.
Hollander does not propose any general argument; rather he says, in effect, “This practice—poems describing real or imaginary artworks—has been going on for a long time; let us look together at some of the more interesting examples.” As a guide, Hollander is inventive and generous (though his diction may be too academic for readers unaccustomed to words like “transumption” or “contrapposto“), and no one will leave this book without a much-sharpened sense of what visual art has meant to poets.
Anthony Hecht’s lectures, by contrast, offer a deliberately conventional, but also eloquent, set of reflections addressed to the sort of reader who (to take examples from a single page) needs to be given a definition of the plain style (“unornamented, spare, and graceful”), and who needs to be told that “Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing” and “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” are “two of Shakespeare’s most impressive sonnets.” Hecht’s first chapter, “Poetry and Painting,” broaches the question that Hollander’s book raises; but unlike Hollander, Hecht includes examples of abstract art. Hecht is interested, too, in poems that insist on manner more than matter, such as Wallace Stevens’s theme and variations, “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” Hecht’s astute commentary pairs Stevens’s poem with Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral and not, as might be expected, with
one of Monet’s water-lily paintings…. I wish instead to make a different and less literal kind of comparison…. What the poem presents is very emphatically something seen and experienced in carefully matched, precisely duplicated, yet subtly varied ways. The poem insists on its parallels, and its deviation from parallels. It resembles, in consequence, Monet’s famous series of paintings of the façade of the cathedral at Rouen, depicted at various hours of the day.
Hecht, a poet who is not put off by manner, is brave to present this aspect of Stevens to a general audience. And though I cannot agree with his view that near its ending the poem betrays “instances of Stevens’ incorrigible racism,”* I admire his defiance of contemporary American popular taste in citing such a poem at all.
In his chapter on poetry and music Hecht succeeds in bringing together, in a way enlightening to his audience, the factors of proportion, order, and harmony that connect mathematics, geometry, music, architecture, and poetry, while not neglecting the simpler connections between musical song and poetic ballads and songs. Yet in this chapter, a somewhat dismissive attitude toward the public begins to make itself felt:
There have been many readers who rejoiced in the delusion that the poems of Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost were sweet and simple expressions of moral uplift, or benign views of life and nature, when in fact such poems were darkly complex, ambiguous, and frankly alarming.
The statement is true, and yet it may be a bit hard on people reading, perhaps for the first time, ambivalent and complex works. This attitude is echoed in the chapter “Public and Private Art,” in which Hecht observes, about a book of poems responding to the death of Kennedy, that “there is not a good poem in the book, and the whole volume is nothing more than deplorable literary opportunism.” The poets’ “largely casual efforts produced pitiable results. Berryman and Auden present themselves at their worst; Ginsberg is perfunctory; the rest are, generally speaking, embarrassing.” Hecht’s entirely valid point is that poetry based on ideologically preformed ideas is usually weak, but there is a sweeping insistence in his tone here that is absent from his characteristic style, which values modulation, detachment, and polish.
The topic of another chapter is entirely different. Hecht takes up a group of themes perennially occurring in lyric poems: the garden and the wilderness, art and nature, ease and toil. In each case, Hecht tends to prefer the more civilized half of each pair. “The dream to which we so eagerly return is that of a world untainted by human or natural imperfection,” he says, of The Tempest: but, on the other hand, did not Stevens say, “The imperfect is our paradise,” and mean it?
The aesthetic of the deliberately imperfect or incomplete is foreign, I think, to Hecht, for whom beauty is harmony, wholeness, order, and unity. Though he pays homage in his chapter “The Contrariety of Impulses” to poems of inner debate and to dialectic in general, he closes by referring to “the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts that, in the name of love and art, we must ceaselessly struggle to reconcile.” Why must art reconcile? Can it not be satisfied merely to present? Is reconciliation the only way to end a poem? Hecht is surely aware of these objections but (perhaps because of the brevity of the lecture format) does not confront them. The cello tones of his prose are incompatible, it seems to me, with art that is expostulatory, comic, staccato, irreverent, discontinuous.
I hold, for example, no particular brief for Anne Sexton, but Hecht seems unduly disturbed by Sexton’s famous poem “Her Kind.” Since he is generally sympathetic toward the poems he has chosen to discuss in these lectures, his irritation with Sexton is conspicuous. In Sexton’s poem, the speaker attempts to express something essential about her character by describing herself as a witch:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunder- stood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Hecht introduces the poem by saying that it “exhibits a distinct kind of emotional disjunction,” a judgment he then expands:
The disjunction of which I spoke is most easily to be detected in the not easily reconcilable shifts of tone from one stanza to the next…. If the first stanza partakes of all the macabre, hallucinatory, and dimly supernatural airs of Elizabethan witchcraft and its lore, the second is quite different, and has about it the odd nursery-tale anthropomorphism and animal domesticity of Arthur Rackham drawings…. But this in turn gives way in the third stanza to something even more inconsistent with what preceded it. The materials of the final stanza are neither folklorish like the first, nor childlike as in the second, but come instead from the terrible annals of the Salem witch trials….
What is troubling about these shifts in tone and background is that we have difficulty grasping the identity of the speaker or figuring out how she feels about herself…. The speaker is not literally going to be executed, and there is something like a plea for pity in the last stanza that, in its witchtrial context, makes no sense, and makes even less sense when it is aligned with the two previous stanzas. Behind this pronounced inconsistency is psychic conflict that may have been so private as to have been unresolved by, and possibly even unknown to, the poet herself.
But Sexton’s poem does not seem to me “troubling” or “inconsistent” in any way not highly conventional. A lyric poem often defines a single thing from radically different perspectives: George Herbert can say that prayer is an “engine against the Almighty” and a few lines later call it “exalted manna.” From one perspective prayer is a catapult aimed against a silent God; from another it is divine delectation to the hungry soul. So, when Sexton is pacing at night, mad, she is the abnormal woman, shunned by her conventional neighbors in their plain houses as though she had the twelve fingers of a witch. When she is mothering her children, fixing suppers, assembling her household goods, being a “white” witch, she is nonetheless doing something else that alienates her from her fellow housewives: she is “whining” in poetry, “rearranging the disaligned” in ways incomprehensible to other suburban women. And finally, when she is “found out” and ostracized—as every social misfit is—she declares that she will take that experience as another path to knowledge, learning the last bright routes of selfhood, surviving defiantly and without shame as a pariah. Rather than exhibiting a “psychic conflict…possibly even unknown to the poet herself,” the poem seems to me to show Sexton entirely aware of her “wrong” fit in suburban Belmont, whether as a woman mentally ill (“possessed”), or as a mother writing verse, or as a person experiencing, in consequence, social death. Social death imposed on women takes many forms, of which the American archetype is certainly the Salem witch trials.
Why does Hecht not understand Sexton’s poem as a consistent picture of a woman artist’s view of her psychic and maternal life and of her suffering at the hands of her neighbors? Is it not logical that the tone used of her madness and the tone used of her maternity should differ? And that both should differ from the tone appropriate to her experience of ostracism? Sexton’s poem—not a great poem but an arresting one—does not exhibit the reconciliation, the love and harmony, that seem essential to Hecht’s aesthetic and perhaps for this reason escapes him.
In his final chapter, “Art and Morality,” Hecht takes up the Nazi denunciation of “Degenerate Art” in the exhibition held in Munich in 1937:
Branded with [this] label, and either displayed under that stigma or put up for auction as undesirable, were works by the following artists: Franz Marc, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Kokoschka, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinski, Modigliani, Henri Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso, Cézanne, Paul Klee, George Grosz, Max Ernst, and Ernest Barlach.
The Nazis, as Hecht summarizes their position, felt that “the artists were trying literally to present and glorify deformity, or else were perversely unable to distinguish between deformity and conventional notions of beauty.” Yet it was not only Nazis who did not approve of Kandinsky or Max Ernst or Grosz; it is still difficult for many ordinary viewers, and even sophisticated ones, to understand a work that seems disturbing or unbeautiful or messy. In fact, such misunderstanding troubles Congress at this very moment.
In his closing lecture, Hecht turns to the farcical firing (or “resignation”) in 1992 of John Frohnmayer, briefly the director of the National Endowment for the Arts, over a crude poem by “Sapphire” (the pen name of Ramona Lofton) as a case study of why governments should get out of censoring the arts. He ends pessimistically, describing our world as one of
populist slogans, commonplace sentiments, cheap political jargon—the world, that is to say, governed by the rhetoric of politics and the advertising that is no small part of election campaigns, conducted in a language largely determined by the public appetite for visceral excitement (which some take for aesthetic enjoyment, when it is not identified with religious rapture). It is a world in which learning and the arts themselves are manipulated by and for political ends….
While this is all true enough, it was also true of the Middle Ages (see “The Pardoner’s Tale”). The medieval Church was adept at “manipulating learning and the arts themselves for political ends,” and at using language in popular preaching so as to create a “visceral excitement” which was indeed a mixture of aesthetic enjoyment and religious rapture. It is of course no comfort whatever to authors who have seen their books pulled from library shelves or who have had their already meager grants rescinded to remember that the Church was a far fiercer censor than any current institution in America could dream of being. What we might conclude from this is that human beings will always tend to pervert language into a vulgar form of incitement and manipulate it for their own ends, and that democracy’s capacity to debase taste can be best seen as yet another historical case of might imposing itself.
In their best moments, both Hecht and Hollander suggest the kind of knowledge and perception that is indispensable both to understanding art and to preserving its spirit in an often hostile culture. The particular nature of this understanding seems to appear in the last two lines of Hollander’s chapter on the respective versions of The Knight, Death, and the Devil in the engraving by Dürer and in the poem by Randall Jarrell. The poet, Hollander says,
…assumes that the realms of craft and moral imagination symbolize and model each other. And thereby he makes the picture into an illustration, as it were, of his own moral tale.
Near the end of his book, Hecht makes a comparable statement:
But if art is what Yeats said it was, “a vision of reality,” it aims to articulate something more durable and less changeable than “community standards” could ever desire to encompass. It wishes to negotiate, however imperfectly, with the permanent, and it is likely to scorn the popular catchwords, the current jargon and conventions.
It is “the gazer’s spirit” and “a vision of reality” that poets bring to poetry and artworks and painters bring to painting, and the accurate gaze and the penetrating vision of artists and poets are private, introspective, and, ultimately, moral. It is for this moral sense, this accuracy to felt life, that America should be intensely proud of its poets, novelists, dramatists, composers, architects, sculptors, painters, choreographers, and performers. And the nation should, as Hecht urges, subsidize the arts vigorously as the best legacy any society can leave its children.
But it is not from current legislators that we can expect much help for the arts. Our hope for the arts must rest on those schoolchildren today who look for more books to read, more music to listen to, more CD-ROMs to learn from. Whitman and Dickinson learned poetry from private reading, and it still can be learned that way. Without subsidy, both Stevens and Williams worked at their professions by day and wrote in their spare time. Hecht’s pessimism is understandable; but as long as there are libraries, there will be poets who resist the language of politicians and advertisers—or who, like John Ashbery, wryly and ironically use that very language in poems that transform clichés into art.
May 9, 1996