Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts

by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, (c) 2008; Cambridge University Press

One of the topics of this blog will be to contemplate readings that have provided me an opportunity to see life in general in a different light, that I hope will serve as a starting point for others to pursue intellectual challenges and, I assume, insights.

While reading the introduction to this textbook, and frankly, wondering why I am someone who reads textbooks for fun . . . I realized I had previously only a basic understanding of “ekphrasis”, which typically means a written response to visual art. Many years reading and writing poetry, and then the completion of a degree in Poetry, does not mean “one” (me) thoroughly understands a subject. Recently, for a variety of reasons which I will touch on in other posts, the insights are a-flowin’.

Loizeaux makes a point that:

” . . . out of the ekphrastic situation, the simple, ‘blameless fun’ of looking at pictures, balloon big issues of life and art. The ekphastic poet . . .comes to the painting seeking friendship, fun, a little flirtation: in short, connection to others in a world that seems warmer and more certain than his own, only to find it indifferent to him. ‘That simple world from which we’ve been evicted,’ is how Sassoon similarly described the scene in an English landscape.” (8)

Loizeaux refers to the “cry of nostalgic modernity” and the longing for an (idealized) time in the past, while discussing poet Richard Wilbur’s poem “A Dutch Courtyard” (1947) in response to Pieter De Hooch’s painting, A Dutch Courtyard (1658/1660).

Loizeaux’s text “called to light” the relationship between poet, painter, and the public; raised the question, what exactly do we do when we write about art? Why write creatively, in response to art? So many benign exercises in poetry workshops later, as students are encouraged to write poems in response to art, there is much more depth to explore to really understand this relationship.

Any of us who engage in ekphrasis, participate in this dialectical situation where we simultaneously crave to enter the painting or work of art, or experience it more deeply, while knowing the indifference of the painting or art work towards us even as we long for this engagement.

The question of the role of poetry in our current time, is a question for future posts . . . the concept and experience of “nostalgia” is also worth exploring. What is nostalgia? Why do we experience it? Is it a natural condition of being human?

If you haven’t explored Ekphrasis (or have no idea what it is), I encourage you to read the following poems for a start:

“Landscape with Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams

“A Dutch Courtyard” by Richard Wilbur

“Mathilde in Normandy” by Adrienne Rich






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