Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Painting and Poetry styles


See also Painting and Poetry styles (part 2)


The analogy of poetry to painting is at least as old as Plato and Simonides. Here I'm not going to discuss Ekphrasis, more how poetry and art styles can be compared.

A selective history of Western Painting

  • Narrative
    • Scenes from a life are combined in one picture
    • A scene from a Bible/Mythical narrative (still a feeling that if painting isn't about god, it's not meaningful)
    • Portraits (first of Patrons, as if the painting couldn't stand up for itself - poetry has to be about big issues?)
  • Stills
    • Landscape (first as a background for Myths or portraits, then for its own sake)
    • Still-life - (first symbol-laden - a meal table represents Gluttony - then 16th century Dutch still lifes and interiors (maps on walls).
    • Impressionism - Ordinary people doing ordinary things. No hidden meanings! (eye as a camera)
  • Imagination (a reaction to photography? Actually it predates photography, and besides, there was the camera obscura)
    • Expressionism - From within. Still using representationalism initially.
    • Surrealism. Dada (letting the irrational in. Expressing oneself making free use of 'reality')
  • Conceptual/Abstract
    • Cubism (cross-cutting, multiple overlapping viewpoints)
    • Non-representational - (doesn't need to 'be' anything, or even 'be about' anything - the work's an object in its own right). Paint, Op-Art, Photorealism, attention to surface.
    • 'Gallery-effect' art (upside down painting; a mirror entitled 'Self Portrait')
    • Procedural art

Can all of these effects be replicated in poetry? The mainstream has many early still-lifes and scenes from narratives. What Art style most resembles poetry's Imagism? Abstract artists can talk about the subtle contrasts of color, how the weight of a purple square offsets the subtlety of the yellow circle, but if you scrunch your eyes up, a Rembrandt has those effects too - the abstract artist has abstracted away the detail. But as people have said, with words there's only so much that can be abstracted away, and detail's hard to get rid of. A general word like "tree" might easily become anything but abstract to a receptive reader, and even "abstract" terms like Goodness have associations.

Painting and poetry eras

Certain eras and schools encouraged the mixing of the 2 arts, with poets and painters having common aims and influences.

  • In the Renaissance, many people, including Michelangelo, tried sonnets.
  • Blake and Rossetti were poet/painters. The Romantics and pre-Raphaelites tended to mix with people from other art-forms even if they weren't multidisciplinary themselves
  • In the 1900s there were several significant friendships between writers and artists: Baudelaire-Cezanne, Cezanne-Mallarme/Zola, etc. DH Lawrence painted.
  • Paris and Surrealism - Picasso (poet), Dali (novel). Leonora Carrington's a recent rediscovery. Klee was also a poet. The Surrealists insisted on the fundamental relations between the arts.
  • New York and Abstraction - "All the studies of W.C. Williams agree that he takes the analogy with painting literally and strives for an equivalency of words. Stevens' relation to painting is a far more figurative and conceptual one". Ashbery's a noted art critic. Rosenberg was a poet then an abstract artist. There's been theoretical cross-fertilisation.


Some painters (e.g. Schiele) leave patches of bare canvas. In some paintings you don't know whether a blob represents an apple or whether it's only there because it's yellow (with Cezanne it could be both). Sometimes you're meant to see the brushwork (in a Hals painting 3 flicks of a brush are enough to express a rakish wink). Artists use collage, incorporating parts of the real world.

These features exist along a spectrum - paintings can be abstract or representational, or a mix. Even if a work is representational, there may be extra things to see - the shadow that becomes a skull in the ambassadors; Dali's trompe l'oeuil.

I look upon poetry as a mixed media (or at least mixed aesthetic) venture. When Hopkins wrote about the "dapple dawn-drawn falcon" he was letting the medium show through. Quotes are like stuck-on additions. Puns and acrostics conceal extra words. In a sonnet, representation can be warped for the sake of the form, not dissimilar to the way Cezanne's tables weren't always rectangular. And with writing, "bare canvas" is the default. The sentence "A man is in a kitchen" leaves out almost everything that a picture would show you immediately - the age of the man, the era, the wealth, whether it's night or day, etc.

Here are some examples of more pure aesthetics

  • Abstract? (Bernstein)
    Casts across otherwise unavailable fields.
    Makes plain. Ruffled. Is trying to
    alleviate his false: invalidate. Yet all is
    "to live out" by shut belief, the
    various, simply succeeds which.
  • Surreal? (Gasgoyne)
    A cluster of insane massacres turns green upon the highroad
    Green as the nadir of a mystery in the closet of a dream
    And a wild growth of lascivious pamphlets became a beehive
    The afternoon scrambles like an asylum out of its hovel
    The afternoon swallows a bucketful of chemical sorrows
    And the owners of rubber pitchforks bake all their illusions
  • Concrete? (Brian Pastoor)
     pa  i n
         i n
       s i n
        s o 


  • Pick a Picture. Rather than write a poem about it (some editors are biased against the results - it's an all too common workshop exercise), try to emulate the style; its stance towards the World and Representation. If it has rough brushstrokes, bare canvas, artificial colours or other non-representational effects, try to emulate them in words.
  • Compare Braque's cubism (multiple merging perspectives) with Stevens' "13 ways of looking at a blackbird".
  • Compare de Chirico's "Dreams of a Poet" with Wendy Cope's poem of the same name.


  • "With a Poet's Eye", Pat Adams, Tate Gallery Publications, 1986?
  • "Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature", Wylie Sypher, (New York: Random House, 1960).
  • "The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting", Wendy Steiner, (Univ of Chicago Press, 1982).
  • "Wallace Stevens and Modern Art", Glen MacLeod, (Yale U.P., 1993).
  • "Painterly abstraction in Modernist American poetry", C. Altieri, CUP, 1989.
  • The Long Conversation between Painting and Poetry
  • The Poet Speaks of Art
  • Illustrated Poetry
  • Image - Text - Image

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