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Hazlitt Thinks on Poetry and Painting
Over at the Canadian Random House site, better known as Hazlitt, writer Linda Besner has written a delicately provocative piece called “Why We Should Treat Poetry Like Painting,” claiming that a) Frank O’Hara would have rather been a painter (but doesn’t that poem really resonate here — “There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life”) and 2) good reasoning for being jealous of painters might be that “[a]s a rule, people like them better than poets, and give them more money for what they make.” (Did you know poetry was a commodity? Oh, you did. OK great.) More:
But mostly what I envy painters for is art galleries. Just walking into an art gallery gives me a feeling of uplift. I love libraries too, but the feeling in a library is that you will paw around ferretting out information, whereas in a gallery the feeling is that enlightenment will come to you. You don’t have to know anything when you get there. You just check your coat, mash the clip-on tag to your collar, and trust that whatever you need to know will be explained as you go along.
This is why I propose that the best way to make contemporary poetry accessible to a wider public would be to put it in museums. To trot out an old saw: “Ut pictura poesis,” Horace wrote in the first century BC. “As is painting so is poetry.” This idea has been bandied about so much that scholars refer to it as u.p.p., and the question of whether poetry and painting do or should resemble each other has preoccupied artists from Titian to Wallace Stevens. These discussions, however, have primarily focused on artistic practice. What I mean isn’t that poetry should have more visual elements or become more abstract or more representational or otherwise do what visual art does. What I mean is that I think people would like poetry better if there were somewhere they could go to look at it that had high ceilings and good lighting and curatorial text to explain things about the poems that might not be obvious.
At the Whitney Biennial a few months ago, I saw a piece that looked a bit like a volleyball net made of spider-thread. It was called Sick Sic Six Sic ((Not)Moving): Seagullsssssssss ssssssssssssssssss, 2018, and it took up the whole length of a small room. I stood looking at it for a minute, and when I walked over to read the curatorial text I learned that the artist, Cameron Crawford, made the piece in response to the deaths of six people close to him. It didn’t explain everything about the artwork (why seagulls?) but it gave me a place to start thinking about it.
A poet may also have an experience in the world—a personal, emotional experience, or an intellectual or visual one—and make an artwork that does not overtly describe or explain the original experience but builds on it instead. At public readings, poets often tell a story about their poem before they read it. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “Cowbirds lay their eggs in another bird’s nest and trick the other bird into taking care of them.” Sometimes it’s as complex as, “You know when someone is explaining the special theory of relativity and they give that example of the guy in a speeding train and the other guy standing on the platform watching the train pass him by? I always feel bad for that guy, so this poem is from his point of view.” In public consumption of visual art, we have a tradition of mediated experience; we expect there to be context not literally communicated by the artwork, and we look to the curatorial text to provide political, biographical, or art historical commentary that might help us to appreciate what we’re seeing. Why not for poetry, too?
Think on this while reading the rest. It starts to make sense: “Poetry and visual art should share a natural audience.”