The painter Cy Twombly, who died recently, meant a great deal to poets - and it's no wonder.  As The New York Times put it:

Mr. Twombly, a tall, rangy Virginian who once practiced drawing in the dark to make his lines less purposeful, steadfastly followed his own program and looked to his own muses — often literary ones, like Catullus, Rumi, Pound and Rilke. He seemed to welcome the privacy that came with unpopularity.

More than one obituary characterized him as "best known for his poetic scribble paintings," which is like all lapidary exclamations partly true, partly not.  It pleases me, at any rate, because when I was back in the fifth grade I industriously filled an entire "blue book" with what I would now call calligraphic scribbles when I ought to have been heeding Mr. Kramer on some subject or other.  Catching me at my art, he smacked me squarely on the crown of the head with the fake, faceted ruby embedded in his state college class ring - and proclaimed that "One day, Don will be a famous writer!"  This crowning awakened me, I imagine, to Art, for I saw not only stars but vistas of many pages waiting to be filled.  But I digress.  Twombly was surely influenced by poetry, but perhaps contemporary poets owe his own work a larger debt than he can have imagined.  In celebration of his life and work, I thought I'd gather just a few testimonials.


In 2007 the Poetry Foundation and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts collaborated to bring poets together in conversation with works of art based on the Pulitzer Foundation's Water exhibition. John Yau served as a curator for this collaboration. He invited poets Cole Swensen, Andrew Joron, and Arthur Sze to reflect on and react to artists including Roni Horn, Cy Twombly, Max Beckmann, Henri Matisse. Here's a bit of what Swensen had to say; full essay here.

Hero and Leander, epic poem by Christopher Marlowe, who died as he wrote it. Some say that, with Marlowe’s flair for the irreverent, had he finished it, Leander might have lived.

Here where water is defined
as the where in which Aphrodite was born
is dissolution. (She will not
save you.) Some call it drowning, some calling
just above the pounding of the waves, some just below

the fleeting impression of a life as heaven, indebted, together we were going to live
by my lamp, I see

that water makes us equal everything.

We don’t know how many times Leander made it across and back perfectly fine, but we are told that it was with the arrival of winter that all his troubles started, and we see it there in the 1962 canvas, the white foam of the colder, harder waves breaking through the surface.

Which is to imply that he died, as most of us do, of excess, of zest (he should have been satisfied with summer), of pushing our luck. It is precisely this tendency to exceed that constitutes art, that is Leandro in his nightly unlikely stroke after stroke. Philip Fisher has claimed that Twombly sees an analogy to painting in Leander’s nightly swimming. Swimming as an act of serial reaching, always outward is a suspended arriving, as is the stroke of the brush. To show that stroke is to trust, and just beyond, where the line turns to language, which is to say, to the absence that each word guarantees.

And then to scrawl through that until it reaches a name. Why is it that Twombly always seems to be writing with his wrong hand? As if it pains him, the line that falters between language and image. In the 1962 canvas, among the names are other words that remain emergent, not yet fully separated, reminding us that written language is always the line abstracted, the living line that distilled itself from life, that stood aside and watched a man pass.

But how easy it is to make an A by accident, or the loop of the lowercase L or an E, and then suddenly a calle, a road through the sea. Which, 20 years later, had shifted its balance, and all the emergent words had consolidated into this one, this name of all un-anchoring, of hurtling, of the one and only no Hero and no slowly redeeming symbology. Just that scream that turned to stone on touch, that remained engraved on the sky above a wave, and above which, small and illegible, something else tries to say.

Twombly is dedicated to the crisis of the line, which is the crisis of signification. Is he writing or drawing or painting these words? And what would be the difference? The written word remains symbolic; the word “ocean,” for instance, remains a road sign pointing to enormous water until the word is drawn, at which point it becomes the blueprint for reality, but only when it is painted does a word actually become, a real thing in a real world, the more barely legible, the more indelible.


In the March 2008 issue of Poetry, we published two poems by H.L. Hix relating to Twombly's work. Hix told us that though the poems were linked with specific paintings by Twombly,

I don't mean these poems to demand prior knowledge of Cy Twombly's art... I do suspect that they will hold relatively more appeal for readers who do (and less appeal for those who do not) share my sense that emotional conflicts internalize, and existential dramas localize, metaphysical and epistemological problems inherent in the human condition.

Here is one of the poems:

Cy Twombly, "Beyond (A System for Passing)"

To say how much I've missed you, I offer this,
at most mist, at least assorted letters, lists,
numbers I insist tell stories. I kissed you
last, Dad, in the casket in which you passed on,
to some next place, but last listened for your voice
last night, these long years after, will listen next
when next oppressed by blue-gray, as I am now,
as I, thus lost, am always by your absence.


And here's another recent poem stimulated by Twombly's work; it's by Javier O. Huerta and appeared in the online journal three candles:

Cy Twombly's Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor)
—The Twombly Gallery-Houston, Texas

A child could not have drawn this.
Maybe something more like 67 children.
(Each with his or her own favorite ice cream.) And not just
Ordinary children. All 67 would have five arms each.
And each arm would have three hands and each hand
Would hold three brushes and two pencils.

And, in his or her own way, each child would love and hate Catullus.
Love him so much that they would crawl the streets of Rome in search of him.
Hate him so much that they would crawl the streets of Rome in search of him.

335 arms to embrace him. 1005 hands to maul him.

Catullus, give back all the beautiful words.


Other notable Twombly-related garlandings include poet Vincent Katz's book on the artist's photographs; Frank O'Hara's "Cy Twombly," published in Art News, vol. 53, no. 8 (December 1954); Charles Olson's piece, in his collected prose -  and maybe best of all... if you happen to have five thousand dollars you can own a copy of this wonderful collaboration between Twombly and Robert Duncan, "The Song of the Border-Guard," from the Black Mountain College Graphics Workshop circa 1952, (from Between the Covers Rare Books):

Of course, folks on a poet's income who find themselves in Chicago can see at a copy right here at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Originally Published: July 6th, 2011

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...