What more is there to be said?
: modern poets on visual art

  • Paul Carey-Kent

    Student thesis: Master's Thesis


    This paper sets out to examine the different ways in which visual art can play a role in poetry. It:
    (i) looks at a variety of poems about representational art to assess in what ways such poems do or do not work effectively (Chapter 1: Representing Representation: Introductory Remarks);
    (ii examines the application of ekphrastic approaches to such texts, using the well-established critical ground of William Carlos Williams' poems on Brueghel, and compare the issues which this highlights (Chapter 2: Representation and Ekphrasis: critics on Williams on Brueghe[);
    (iii)looks at the book-length sequence A Colour for Solitude, which is sparked off by paintings, to see what strategies this approach facilitates and to explore the impact of the poems before and after the reader has seen the paintings to which they refer (Chapter 4: A Sequence Before and After the Visual: Sujata Bhatt' s 'A Colour for Solitude')
    (iv)considers to what extent the approaches applied above might operate in the different contexts of abstract and conceptual art (Chapter 5: The Challenge Of Abstraction, and Chapter 6: The Conceptual Tum In My Own Poems About Art).

    It is not straightforward to distinguish those three different types of visual art - representational, abstract and conceptual - as it will be apparent that a good representational picture is likely to contain both abstract and conceptual qualities, that representational references can be read into almost any abstract work, that conceptual work will often represent something, etc. But I think these broad distinctions are useful, as it will become clear from the poetic examples how the characteristic focus of responses to these differing types of visual work do differ in practice.

    In the course of this analysis, I will use my own poems about art as examples, especially in the case of conceptual art, where other examples are scarce. I will suggest that ekphrasis - in essence the 'speaking out' of the work of art - works well where representational art is involved, but that it is difficult to do this for an abstract or conceptually-based work. Rather, poems from these sources use the work of art more as a jumping-off point from which an emotion, a playful characterisation, or a critical/philosophical route can be taken. That is not to say that these cannot be good poems, but that they struggle to be meaningfully ekphrastic.

    I will examine these questions in the context of poems about art - primarily about modem art - by modem poets. Rather than worry at any length about what constitutes the modem, or modernism, I take it for this purpose to be anything written in the last hundred years. I will link this to my own writing practice by including poems of my own..

    This paper will, therefore, look at various ways in which poems can use visual art. Whilst more by way of illustrative examples than a scientifically-based survey, I think the examples suggest means by which the use of art - of various types - can act as more than oddly laid-out art criticism or as a indirect way of writing about the world:

    (v)it can provide a notably economical jumping-off point for narrative, descriptive or philosophical poetry, as a more complex shared starting point of writer and reader can be achieved. Auden provides a particularly good example of this. The illustrations from my own writing seek to show how primarily-conceptual art can function in these ways just as more traditionally figurative art can do. My poems tend, though, not to assume that the reader has seen the art work: that is a more feasible approach for conceptual works which tend to rely less on actual visual appearance, though the need to describe the work reduces the economy achievable.

    •It can bring with it the resonance of allusion in the same way as reference to other literature. This, of course, depends on the reader having seen, or having access to, if not the actual work or its reproduction, at least a sufficiently similar work (eg one probably has to have seen a Rothko, but not any particular Rothko, to get much out of poems on Rothko). And it is relatively easy for the reader to check on the allusion if necessary - possibly easy relative to the literary equivalent (eg if the work alluded to is a novel, which takes time to read), certainly easy relative to the position say 200 years ago, due to the increased prevalence of reproductions.
    •It can enhance the experience of art. Certainly I found that true of Sujata Bhatt's book on Paula Modersohn-Becker. This might be true even if such writing was little more than art criticism dressed up as poetry, but I think Bhatt's poems do have a poetic life of their own which takes them further than that. Nonetheless, I conclude that they are, as poems, substantially enhanced by seeing the art which inspired them.
    On the other hand, I am not convinced that poetry can usefully seek to re-enact the experience of a art work, and the ekphrastic analysis of Williams' poems on Brueghel does not persuade me that this is achieved.
    However, in analysing my example poems I believe I show that poems can meet my own criteria for a successful poem about a work of visual art: it should work as a poem in itself, the use of the visual art should enhance any other impact, and it should have a positive impact on how the visual work is or can be viewed.
    Date of AwardJul 2004
    Original languageEnglish


    • modern poetry

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