Poetry and Painting

On a cloudy day, at the ocean, staring out at the horizon, one can see two things. That the earth does curve. And that the place at which the sky and the sea meet disappears.

In the fall of 1999 I moved to New York City with a backpack full of clothes, a blank journal, and a couple of books. In one of them, Ink Dark Moon, Jane Hirshfield’s translations of Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi, I had been writing little response poems underneath the text.

I felt like I had been emptying myself in preparation for this huge life change—a different city, going back to school after four years in the work force, leaving behind people that I loved, arriving somewhere new, frightened, listless, alone.

It had all the weight of pilgrimage—we go to haunted places, sacred places, places of immense natural beauty—the desert, the ocean, the mountains—we go there, starving and ready to eat.

Before I went back to school to study poetry, I painted. I had no education in it, but during my years of working in the public policy and organizing arenas, I found the need for a kinetic art. And it was indeed kinetic for me. The surface of a painting can be in motion or approximate motion, and there is a relationship between the painter’s body and the canvas too that is a physical and fraught space.

The poet wishes to be so arduously involved in tubes of color, brushes, the grain of canvas—what happens to a painting when a layer of acrylic is left long enough and then disturbed with new color and shapes. Revising a poem is also like this.

Perhaps this is why I, as a painter, always chose to work with acrylics rather than oils or any other finer kinds of paint. As a painter, there’s no idea of revision. I’m rather adding layers on top of layers. Acrylic holds its shape but still resists against the new strokes. Impossible texture is achieved by placing a dark color against light. Shading and internal glow come through with a wet rag taken to strokes not yet dried—the material itself allows the “revision” process to blend (seamlessly or not, as you like) with the original generative process.

What’s on the page may be a written trace, but the poem as a conceptual moment in time or an action in space still reacts against new revision.

Though I had painted and had ideas about painting, I had never truly been an art lover—never had truly seen and been fed by paintings. That October I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw two shows that changed my understanding of painting.

On the first floor, in the famed Egyptian Wing, I saw work by the contemporary Egyptian artist Farouk Hosny. So frequently museum showings of art of non-Western cultures is relegated to the safely ancient and exotic, or to the paintings that are directly influenced by European idioms and forms. Hosny was nothing like this.

His landscapes were pointedly abstract but rooted in an Egyptian vocabulary of color, form, and movement. The canvases were huge, and layered. The history of them could be seen, faded and alarmed, iconic symbols littered at the edges, and lyrical shapes—an arching crescent, stars, triangular shapes—floating among the washes of color.

In Egyptian art, once decolonization occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century and the Egyptian people, free from foreign rule after millienia—Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French, English—began to work in modern art forms, an amazing thing happened: what were subsequent periods of Western modern art—classicism, neo-classicism, impressionism, modernism, abstract expressionism, postmodernism—happened immediately and simultaneously.

When the great temple of Abu Simbel was deconstructed and reconstructed on higher ground, threatened by flooding caused by the building of the modern-day temple, the Aswan High Dam, the destroyed statue—second from the left—was reconstructed in its destroyed state. Why wouldn’t it be?

In a dance, parts of the choreographic process are rehearsed away. In less interesting paintings, the work is pronounced solid and finished—no stray marks exist to show it was once made. Similarly in staged performance arts we are meant not to see the efforts of the actors.

I am so interested, for this reason, in the sculptures of Camille Claudel—later Rodin and Zadkine both copy her. In Claudel’s work, the sculptures begin to emerge from the larger piece of rock from which they were carved. At some critical point of non-completion, she abandons the sculpture. No, not abandons, rather Claudel allows the sculpture to exist at the moment between. Eve made, Eve-as-Rib, perhaps even still within the Body of Adam.

Why should art complete itself? Ought not the artist surrender at least part of it?

I climbed to the second floor and in the Modern Art Wing, I caught my first glimpse of Hans Hofmann. Ten of his paintings from the last two years of his life—The Renate Series—were being exhibited side by side. What do I love the most about Hofmann? Is it the profusion of color? The intense dedication to physicality that both the shapes depicted and the surface of the canvas itself represents? I think it is the dynamic and dramatic tension he brought to the canvas by repudiating classical laws of perspective. It is impossible to tell which is the foreground and which is the background in a Hofmann painting. Whether one is figure or landscape, it becomes irrelevant.

How could a poet not love this? Walter Pater must have been dreaming about Hofmann when in 1873 when he wrote, “All art aspires to the condition of music.”

It’s poetry that Hofmann was dreaming about when he painted, as evidenced by his lovely and lyrical titles: Profound Longing, Deep Within to Ravine, Renate’s Nantucket, To Miz: Pax Vobiscum.

Full of Hofmann, I went on a trip to France in the summer of 2000 and while I traveled—several weeks in Paris, and then by train through Provence with stints in Cassis and Arles, before heading to Corti in the heart of Corsica, where I lost myself beautifully—I encountered art without the language to describe it.

Surrounded by people I loved speaking a language I didn’t know, my poems pared themselves down from pages and pages into six or seven lines each. It was amazing being separated from my vocabulary. I found myself using only those English words I could approximate in French. All the spaces that existed in my conversation due to my lack of knowledge replicated themselves in the poems I was writing.

Only there, in that moment of loss and gain, could I have seen the paintings of Nicolas DeStael and known them. I watched as DeStael’s abstract earlier works slowly returned to the space of realism, and with his images—seagulls, a train, a tree, a boat, all began to emerge from the pulsing color fields—I learned what Hofmann’s dynamic perspective applied to poetry might sound like. I learned also how to look at Hofmann again, to understand finally that Rothko’s work was not minimalism, that my current experience of linguistic lack could approximate that traveling experience better than I could hope to do in my journals—which unlike the poems I was writing were full of properly ordered sentences and paragraphs.

Do we merely dissolve into each other? Is there no figure or landscape, only the field of shapes and colors? DeStael returned me to the world of objects.

When I returned to the States that fall I immediately went back to the museum. Though the Hofmann show had long since closed, I first saw the work of Agnes Martin.

What can I say here when silence would pay the most respect?

I haven’t been silent about it in fact—two poems about my experience looking at Agnes Martin paintings appear in The Far Mosque. In one I tried to interrogate philosophically the ideas of the paintings, in the other I tried to use language mimetically to demonstrate what it was like to look at one.

Still, it is always a question of form and how one forms poems. How does previous experience inform the final shape of the poem—I mean in the lines and phrases? How can choose not to revise out the errors, the missteps, the stuttering, the stray marks and confusions?

Agnes Martin wrote once, “You wouldn’t think of form at the ocean.”

Her canvases are both formal and formless, blank and governed by the grids she drew across them in graphite pencil. One is tempted to think of her as a minimalist, or even—as Martin thought of herself—as a classicist interested in form and design. But the canvases themselves belie it. Martin worked purely by hand—the squares are irregular, the lines not mathematically straight—the human element, the lovely emotion of it, governs these cool works. Their titles, like Hofmann’s, progress from the minimal (untitled) to the suggestive (The Beach, The Harvest) to the shamelessly sentimental (Innocence, Lovely Life, Everyday Happiness).

But it was the carefully worked surface that really broke my heart. What appears to be blankness or whiteness from ten feet away dissolves into an amazing, worked texture on close examination. The painting I saw at the Met that first day was drawn, pointed, littered with marks—brilliantly alive. Somewhere I read that Martin could spend a year on a single canvas. You can tell when you see the traces of submerged shapes under the cool washes of white or gray. Somewhere else I remember reading that she once stopped painting for nearly a decade.

Martin also saw art as a process, writing, “I imagine my paintings as beach you must cross to get to the ocean.”

What is that ocean? What is that place where the sea and sky evaporate or condense? Why write poems or make paintings in a dangerous world? For Martin it was simple: “Beauty and happiness and life are all the same and they are pervasive, unattached and abstract and they are our only concern. They are immeasurable, completely lacking in substance. They are perfect and sublime. This is the subject matter of art.”

Originally Published: April 5th, 2006

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...