WHEN IT COMES to the relationship between poetry and visual art, the poet and art critic John Ashbery may have said it best:
About what to put in your poem-painting:
Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.
Names of boys you once knew and their sleds,
Skyrockets are good — do they still exist?
There are a lot of other things of the same quality
As those I've mentioned. Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,
Dull-sounding ones. She approached me
About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
Humdrum testaments were scattered around.
These lines from Ashbery’s “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” illustrate — I use the word advisedly — the mental process of the poet picking and choosing among possible representations of the world. First to mind are beautiful things, the lyrical and the nostalgic. But in addition to “important words” there are “dull-sounding” ones, and these make up the greater portion of our daily life and speech: “She approached me / About buying her desk.” But even in the quotidian there is surreal poetry to be found: “Suddenly the street was / Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.” The hopelessness of capturing the minutiae of the world drives the poet to distraction — and abstraction: “Humdrum testaments were scattered around.” Can we even visualize such a thing? What begins as a “poem-painting” ends up in a place paint can't depict. Conversely, pretty as the word “delphinium” is, the thing itself is even prettier; why read a poem describing delphinium when you can look at a picture of it (or even, if possible, the actual flower)?
Words and pictures excel at such different things. How did they get so intertwined? Leonard Barkan, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton, has spent many years thinking about this conundrum. These radically different discourses have been wedded in a paradoxical relation dating back to the ancient Greeks: “Ut pictura poesis” (“as a painting, so a poem”) was Horace’s coinage, but it follows upon a saying of the 5th-century poet Simonides of Ceos, preserved in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens: “Painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture.”
What poetry and painting have in common, of course, is that both attempt a representation, or a “counterfeit,” per that word’s original meaning as simple mimicry. Barkan sees the perennial pairing of the two as a “shell game, an act of evasion, an attempt to promote one discourse at the expense of another, a particularly persistent skirmish in long-running wars for cultural prestige among different aesthetic and intellectual enterprises.” More interestingly, he claims that “word-and-image is an empowering device that has been used to enable makers of text and makers of pictures both to theorize and to pr...read more