The Magazine

Painted Words

Why poets want to paint, and painters want to write.

Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By THOMAS M. DISCH
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Dancing in the Wind

Poetry and the Art of the British Isles

edited by Charles Sullivan

Harry N. Abrams, 144 pp., $29.95

Seeing Venice

Bellotto's Grand Canal

by Mark Doty

Getty Trust, 64 pp., $14.95

Poetry Comics

An Animated Anthology

by Dave Morice

Teachers & Writers, 136 pp., $16.95

BACK IN THE 1960S, when I was in my twenties, it seemed that all my friends who were writers were married to painters. I never doubted then that, of the two callings, literature was the nobler and required more brains. Was there a Nobel Prize for painting? Painting suited the more earthy and sensual nature of women. The fact that there were so few famous women painters was an accident of history. Men were writers and women painters in the same essential way that all dogs are boys and all cats girls.

That was an error, I realize now. Writers are drawn to painters as yin to yang, sweet to sour, soft to hard. And sometimes--indeed, more frequently in this promiscuous age--they aspire not just to cohabit but to arrogate to themselves the attributes of the other art form. Picasso and Marsden Hartley and Larry Rivers published their poems and playlets, while Victor Hugo and D.H. Lawrence and A.R. Ammons put their paintings on the auction block. There is no official census of the poets and painters who have transgressed the boundaries between their arts, but it easily exceeds those who have been seen to do so in public.

I know this because I confess to being one of the transgressors. Twice in my life, first in the early 1980s and again, with even more abandon, this last year, I have left off writing full-time in order to paint. As a result I feel I have a Teiresian insight into the painterly life that most lifelong painters themselves have forgotten or taken for granted: chiefly, the sheer glory. Surely, it is no accident that so much of the earliest Italian painting is given over to angels and depictions of heaven, until all the domes and cupolas and barrel-roofs in Christendom have become one glowing Baroque cloudland of painterly joy. This is not the usual narrative of the "Progress of Painting" that one learns in Art 101, but I think it sums it up at least as well as the triumph of the laws of perspective and anatomy.

Publishers feel a similar impulse to unite the two realms, but their efforts at matchmaking are usually botched. A case in point, a thirty-dollar anthology of poems and color plates from Abrams, one of the mainstays of art publishing, called "Dancing in the Wind: Poetry and the Art of the British Isles," edited by Charles Sullivan, a gentleman with a Ph.D. in social psychology who has edited ten other "anthologies of literature," all published by Abrams. The book, not unnaturally, is dedicated "to Paul Gottlieb, my publisher." It is a run-of-the-mill coffee-table book that mashes together a lot of old poetic chestnuts with an equal quantity of old painterly chestnuts: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways," for example, with Arthur Hughes's "April Love," the painterly equivalent of a Bette Davis movie. The editorial contribution is a brief note facing the color plate: "Owned for a time by William Morris, this romantic painting includes symbols of eternal life (the ivy) as well as love's transience (the fallen rose petals)."

Another pairing, of a poem by Philip Larkin and a portrait by Lucian Freud, is glossed: "Freud portrays an interesting face, but he gives no hint of what the young man might be thinking." This is a blandness scarcely worth the bother of reprimanding. Sliced out of the book and pinned to a bulletin board, the plates should serve the basic purpose that Horace refers to in his often-cited lines on the subject: As with paintings, so with poetry: Some are best seen close up, others from across the room. The across-the-room gestalt conveyed by a reduced image on glossy paper is all you can hope for in even the best art book, so it is easy to ignore the editorial piffle. Sullivan's selections are commendably eclectic within the range of all that is curious, agreeable, and well behaved. But it does not in any single instance address the question of what poetry and painting may have in common, except insofar as they may be about an Irish fellow with an interesting face.