Posts filed under ‘Art and Painting’

Fra Lippo Lippi

Robert Browning

Listen (to Paul Giamatti)

[Florentine painter, 1412-69]

I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what’s to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, ’tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
The Carmine’s my cloister: hunt it up,
Do,—harry out, if you must show your zeal,
Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
And nip each softling of a wee white mouse,
Weke, weke, that’s crept to keep him company!
Aha, you know your betters! Then, you’ll take
Your hand away that’s fiddling on my throat,
And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
Three streets off—he’s a certain . . . how d’ye call?
Master—a …Cosimo of the Medici,
I’ the house that caps the corner. Boh! you were best!
Remember and tell me, the day you’re hanged,
How you affected such a gullet’s-gripe!
But you, sir, it concerns you that your knaves
Pick up a manner nor discredit you:
Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets
And count fair price what comes into their net?
He’s Judas to a tittle, that man is!
Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
Lord, I’m not angry! Bid your hang-dogs go
Drink out this quarter-florin to the health
Of the munificent House that harbours me
(And many more beside, lads! more beside!)
And all’s come square again. I’d like his face—
His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
With the pike and lantern,—for the slave that holds
John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair
With one hand (“Look you, now,” as who should say) (more…)

July 7, 2006 at 9:58 pm 1 comment

The Dance

William Carlos Williams


In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess.

The last poem (I think) in the Art and Painting theme. It’s hard to imagine any collection of poems about painting that didn’t include William Carlos Williams, and his brilliant collection of poems – Pictures from Brueghel (1962). Williams is, in many ways, the perfect poet for Brueghel because he’s the master of taking some casual, everyday scene, describing it in loving detail, and making you see the profound beauty of the mundane, its implied significance.

The Dance, though predating Pictures from Brueghel, is my favourite example of just how well Williams does this. There are many reasons why this is an incredible poem. There’s the sheer sound of it, to begin with, the rollicking, foot-thumping beat of the words, the sly, skipping rhythm, the repeated -ound and the sudden turn of heel that rhymes prance with dance, the repetition of that first line that brings the poem full circle. Then there’s vividness of the image, the deeply physical, table-jostling sense of the celebration, a picture of ruddy-cheeked frolick if there ever was one. And finally, there’s that undefined but tangible sense of the idyll, of an age big-bellied with happiness, of a great and spreading calm that underlies all the frenetic activity in the poem itself. How Williams manages to convey that impression is beyond me – but the fact that he can is what makes him one of my favourite poets.

(Incidentally, I just realised to my horror that we’ve never run Williams before either. What have I been thinking?)


July 6, 2006 at 2:23 pm 8 comments

My Last Duchess

Robert Browning


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my Lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”; such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart . . . how shall I say? . . . too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace–all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good; but thanked
Somehow . . . I know not how . . . as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”–and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
–E’en then would be some stooping; and I chuse
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your Master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.

Casting about for poems to include in the Art / Painting theme, I discovered that in the 140 or so posts that we’ve put up on Poi-tre so far, we’re yet to include a single poem by Robert Browning. This will not do.

My Last Duchess isn’t really a poem about painting – the portrait is mostly incidental. But it’s a delightful poem nonetheless, a brilliant example of just why Browning is such an incredible poet – his talent for irony, his skill at writing dialogue, his flair for the dramatic, his ability to conjure up the most vivid scenes, the nonchalant ease with which he both makes a case and, in the same lines, confutes it, the mesmerising quality of his language. This is a poem that is both dancingly light-hearted, tripping easily off the tongue, and deadly serious, both sinister and tragic.

And if Browning can use a portrait as an excuse to tell us a story, can we do less than use the same portrait as an excuse to include this poem in our Art / Painting theme?


for more commentary, see Minstrels.

July 4, 2006 at 1:27 pm 6 comments

I am Goya

Andrey Voznesensky


I am Goya
of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged
till the craters of my eyes gape
I am grief

I am the tongue
of war, the embers of cities
on the snows of the year 1941
I am hunger

I am the gullet
of a woman hanged whose body like a bell
tolled over a blank square
I am Goya

O grapes of wrath!
I have hurled westward
the ashes of the uninvited guest!
and hammered stars into the unforgetting sky – like nails
I am Goya

(translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz)

A poem that captures so well the darkness and violence of Goya’s vision, marrying it to images from the Second World War.


The original in Russian (we think! hat-tip Black Mamba)

Я – Гойя!
Глазницы воронок мне выклевал ворон,
слетая на поле нагое.

Я – Горе.

Я – голос
Войны, городов головни
на снегу сорок первого года.

Я – Голод.

Я – горло
Повешенной бабы, чье тело, как колокол,
било над площадью голой…

Я – Гойя!

О, грозди
Возмездья! Взвил залпом на Запад –
я пепел незваного гостя!
И в мемориальное небо вбил крепкие звезды –
Как гвозди.

Я – Гойя.

July 2, 2006 at 3:59 am 9 comments

The Scream

Donald Hall


Observe. Ridged, raised, tactile, the horror
of the skinned head is there. It is skinned
which had a covering-up before,
and now is nude, and is determined

by what it perceives. The blood not Christ’s,
blood of death without resurrection,
winds flatly in the air. Habit foists
conventional surrender to one

response in vision, but it fails here,
where the painstaking viewer is freed
into the under-skin of his fear.
Existence is laid bare, and married

to a movement of caught perception
where the unknown will become the known
as one piece of the rolling mountain
becomes another beneath the stone

which shifts now toward the happy valley
which is not prepared, as it could not
be, for the achieved catastrophe
which produces no moral upshot,

no curtain, epilogue, nor applause,
no Dame to return purged to the Manse
(the Manse is wrecked) – not even the pause,
the repose of art that has distance.

(Donald Hall is the new Poet Laureate)

We’ve all seen the painting. The bridge, the skull like head, the swirling water, the traumatised sky – everything that goes into the making of a nightmare. And amidst it all, the pure intensity of the cry emanating from the canvas. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is one of the most iconic paintings of our time, and here Hall does a splendid job of exploring it, beginning with basic observation and slowly pushing your face deeper and deeper into the canvas until you are staring eyeball to eyeball at the vertiginous power of Munch’s vision. Hall allows you no repose here, and very little distance, and the poem is truer to the painting for it.


June 29, 2006 at 5:56 pm 1 comment

Tiepolo’s Hound (extract)

Derek Walcott



On my first trip to the Modern I turned a corner,
rooted before the ridged linen of a Cezanne.

A still life. I thought how clean his brushes were!
Across that distance light was my first lesson.

I remember stairs in couplets. The Metropolitan’s
marble authority, I remember being

stunned as I studied the exact expanse
of a Renaissance feast, the art of seeing.

The I caught a slash of pink on the inner thigh
of a white hound entering the cave of a table,

so exact in its lucency at The Feast of Levi,
I felt my heart halt. Nothing, not the babble

of the unheard roar that rose from the rich
pearl-lights embroidered on ballooning sleeves,

sharp beards and gaping goblets, matched the bitch
nosing a forest of hose. So a miracle leaves

its frame, and the epiphanic detail
illuminates an entire epoch:

a medal by Holbein, a Vermeer earring, every scale
of a walking mackerel by Bosch, their sacred shock.

Between me and Venice the thigh of a hound;
my awe of the ordinary, because even as I write,

paused on a step of this couplet, I have never found
its image again, a hound in astounding light.

Everything blurs. Even its painter. Veronese
Or Tiepolo in a turmoil of gesturing flesh,

drapery, columns, arches, a crowded terrace,
a balustrade with leaning figures. In the mesh

of Venetian light on its pillared arches
Paolo Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi

opens on a soundless page, but no shaft catches
my memory: one stroke for a dog’s thigh!



But isn’t that the exact perspective of loss,
that the loved one’s features blur, in dimming detail,

the smile with its dimpled corners, her teasing voice
rasping with affection, as Time draws its veil,

until all you remember are her young knees
gleaming from an olive dress, her way of walking,

as if on a page of self-arranging trees,
hair a gold knot, rose petals silently talking?

I catch an emerald sleeve, light knits her hair,
in a garland of sculpted braids, her burnt cheeks;

catch her sweet breath, be the blest on near her
at that Lucullan table, lean when she speaks,

as clouds of centuries pass over the brilliant ground
of the fresco’s meats and linen, while her wrist

in my forced memory caresses and arched hound,
as all its figures melt in the fresco’s mist.

It’s hard to conceive of a collection of poems about art and painting that doesn’t include some reference to Walcott’s luminous and incredible Tiepolo’s Hound. This is a celebration of art at its most insightful and extravagant – a book-length poem that is at once an intensely personal memoir, a profound work of art appreciation and an immensely visual work of language. I picked these two sections from the book only because they are the ones that describe the poem that the book gets its title from, but the whole book goes on in this vein.

And what a vein it is! This is trademark Walcott – the sharp intelligence of the poet half-concealed amid long, rambling sentences; the subtle rhymes, sometimes perfect, sometimes a little off, but never, ever obtrusive; the gorgeous phrases so casually scattered within the speaking voice (“a page of self-arranging trees”, “Across the distance light was my first lesson”).

What other poet could write “the epiphanic detail / illuminates an entire epoch”, thus encapsulating the whole point of his poem in a single line, and make it sound natural enough to get away with it?


June 27, 2006 at 2:38 pm 2 comments


Charles Baudelaire


Rubens, garden of idleness watered by oblivion,
Where quick flesh pillows the impotence of dreams,
Where life's affluence writhes in eddying abandon
Like air in the air, or water in streams.

Leonardo da Vinci, deep mirror of darkness,
Where angels appear, their smiles charged with mystery
And tenderness, within the shadowy enclosures
Of pines and glaciers that shut in their country.

Rembrandt, tragic hospital re-echoing round a sigh;
A tall crucifix for only ornament
Traversed obliquely by a single wintry ray
Through which prayers rise, exhaling from excrement.

Michelangelo, no man's land where Hercules and Christ
Are at one; where powerful phantoms in crowds
Erect themselves deliberately in darkening twilights,
With pressed, rigid fingers ripping open their shrouds.

Rage of the wrestler, impudence of the faun;
Puget the convict's melancholy emperor,
Caging the lion's pride in a weak, jaundiced man,
Deducing beauty from crime, vice and terror.

Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul
Flutters like a moth, lost in the brilliance
Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool
Clear decors enclosing the changes of the dance.

Goya, nightmare compact of things incredible:
Foetuses fried for a witch's sabbath feast;
An old woman at a mirror, a little naked girl
Lowering an artful stocking to tempt a devil's lust.

Delacroix, blood lake haunted by evil angels
In the permanent green darkness of a forest of firs,
Where under a stricken sky a muffled sigh fills
The air like a faintly echoed fanfare of Weber's.

Such, O Lord, are the maledictions, the tears,
The ecstasies, the blasphemies, the cries of Te Deum
Re-echoing along labyrinthine corridors:
A dream for mortal hearts distilled from divine opium,

The watchword reiterated by sentinels
A thousand times, the message whispered from post to post,
A beacon burning on a thousand citadels,
A call of all the hunters lost in the great forest.

For is this not indeed, O Lord, the best witness
That our dignity can render to Your pity,
This tide of tears which age after age gathers
To fail and fall on the shore of Your eternity?

(translated from the French by David Paul)

The poem that initially inspired this whole theme. What's lovely about it is the way Baudelaire captures so perfectly the individual style of each painter, so that reading the poem is like wandering through a gallery of (pre-1850) European art. An altogether amazing experience.


June 25, 2006 at 1:46 pm Leave a comment

Why I am not a Painter

Frank O'Hara


I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have
SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it oranges. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called

From the profound to the whimsical. Why I am not a Painter it is a quintessentially O'Hara-esque poem – delightfully lighthearted but managing to say, or at least suggest, something essential. I can't explain just what it is I think O'Hara is saying here (I'm not sure he knows himself) but in some not unimportant way the poem seems to hint at a great truth about the nature of poetry and art. About how the two arrive at absence through fundamentally different processes, one by never getting to the essence at all, dealing only in approximations; the other by taking the essence out in order to make it more noticeable by its absence (was it Andrew Wyeth who said that the key thing about a painting is what's missing from it?). Perhaps it's just that the specific experiences seem so familiar. If you've ever tried your hand at writing poetry at all, you can easily relate to that last stanza: the bit about "there should be so much more…of words, of how terrible orange is and life" and the bit about "my poem is finished and I haven't mentioned orange yet".

I'm probably overanalysing it. Hell, I'm almost certainly overanalysing it. The other thing that makes this such an entertaining poem is the way O'Hara pulls of the casual, conversational tone, and the way the poem is dotted with tiny asides to create an effect that is at least half comic. More than anything else this is a deliciously funny poem, one that must be taken seriously precisely because it tries so hard not to do so itself.


June 23, 2006 at 2:30 pm 5 comments

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

This post marks the beginning of a new theme – poems about painters, painting and art.

Musee des Beaux Arts is more than just one of my favourite Auden poems, it's also one of those poems that have become an integral part of how I think – it's rare, for instance, that I visit a museum and come away without the first four lines popping into my head.

What I love about it is how visual it is, how Auden's marvellous description makes it possible to visualise the painting so precisely. Auden has two challenges here – he has to make you see the painting, and then make you see the message in the painting, and he manages both admirably. 


For more commentary see Minstrels.

Oh, and by way of contrast, consider this W.C. Williams take on the same theme:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

– W. C. Williams, 'Landscape with the fall of Icarus' from Pictures from Brueghel (1962)

June 21, 2006 at 4:42 pm Leave a comment