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 practice their craft.” In other words, Simonides's mirroring of poems and painting opened up a vista of potential self-knowledge for each. His statement marks the birth of comparative criticism.
Barkan's book is not a comprehensive history of ekphrasis (descriptive writing about artworks), nor does it track the co-evolution of image and word. Instead, he meditates on different facets of poetry and painting under a series of chapter headings that emphasize their binary relation: “Visible and Invisible,” “Apples and Oranges,” “Desire and Loss.” He doesn’t offer a single line of argument. There are contests: the old contest between reality and images, first staged by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, and given a new twist in Dante’s Commedia; and a contest between poetic image and painted image, such as Petrarch staged in his sonnets praising Simone Martini's portrait of Laura. And of course there are contests between artists. A crucial one is the painter Zeuxis’s famous competition with Parrhasius, as related by Pliny. Zeuxis’s talent for mimesis was such that his painting of grapes attracted real birds, which flew up to peck at them. But his triumph was short lived: when he demanded that Parrhasius pull back the curtain on his painting, the joke was on him: the curtain itself was painted. Whereupon Zeuxis conceded the prize, “saying that whereas he had deceived birds Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.”
Deception: this is the crux of all criticism of image-making, whether linguistic or pictorial. Parrhasius’ particularly egregious deception resides in the fact that he “paints an invisible picture, that is, the one Zeuxis imagines behind the curtain.” The most famous Platonic argument against art (it’s in The Republic) is an ontological one — pictures are thrice removed from Ultimate Reality (the realm of the eternal Forms — but, as Barkan demonstrates, it’s the rhetorical nature of image-making that really perturbs the philosopher. Pictures aren't just neutral reflections of things in this world, much less the eternal one. And this is why pictorial and linguistic practices are so often yoked together; they are interchangeable not when they are mimicking nature but when they exploit their medium to emphasize perceptual differences and introduce relativism into discourse. Plato, Barkan tells us, “uses the fact that the same thing can look different from different vantage points as an analogy to the dangerously conflicted and changeable state of imitative poets and their audiences.” This has political consequences for his ideal state: artifice (of either painting or poetry) leads to perspectivism, perspectivism to relativism, relativism to division and ultimately deception.
If Plato's argument seems slightly recherché in our age of riotously proliferating images and information, it's worth remembering that, all over the world, there are still taboos around depictions of sacred objects, including mimetic representations of God's creatures. Even some poets have accepted it: W.H. Auden, after his conversion to Christianity, decided that poetry was after all a frivolous activity, a copy of a copy of God's mind. And since you can't wade into a controversy in American poetry without hearing complaints that it is dead, irrelevant, unreadable, or inauthentic, it is heartening to remember that these are just the latest episodes of a long argument through the ages. Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry, which Barkan cites at crucial moments to bolster his argument that the hatred of poetry turns on the hatred of imagination as performance (again, a kind of deception), is as relevant now as it was in 1579, when it gave anti-theatrical Puritan Stephen Gosson the what for.
Barkan leads us on a winding path from antiquity to the Renaissance, examining ekphrasis in the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and Petrarch, and swerving into the hallucinogenic world of word-and-image that is Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. At each juncture, the way that poetry appropriates a visual artwork leads its speaker to an epiphany about the real, bearing out the promise of Simonides's critical mirroring. Neither Simonides nor Horace give a hint, though, of the eros Barkan identifies in the relation between poems and paintings. Whereas poems are the inked trace of Love elevated to a cerebral construct — for evidence, look no farther than Dante and Petrarch — artworks may bear the seminal trace of the lover, as in the many stories from antiquity in which men fornicate with statues. (A famous example, quoted by Barkan, appears in Pliny the Elder: “They say that a certain man was once overcome with love for the statue and that, after he had hidden himself [in the shrine] during the nighttime, he embraced it and that it thus bears a stain, an indication of his lust.”)
It is unsurprising, then, how slippery these analytic categories can be: poems and paintings, paintings and sculptures, images and living beings, truth and artifice. And that is Barkan's underlying point. In art, every axiom melts into its converse. The originary paradox of criticism — “Painting is mute poetry, poetry a speaking picture” — has populated millennia with its generative marriage of opposites. Painting yearns erotically for words; words yearn for pictures. And this yearning, as Ashbery recognizes, is intrinsic to the experience of making either:
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.