Poetry News

Ange Mlinko Reviews Leonard Barkan's New Book on Poetry & Painting

By Harriet Staff


Ange Mlinko, perhaps non-ruffled after Carol Muske-Dukes's critique of her "re-track" of Adrienne Rich, has published a piece at LARB on Leonard Barkan’s Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures, which asks the question, "Why do painters sometimes wish they were poets--and why do poets sometimes wish they were painters?" Mlinko writes:

Barkan's book is not a comprehensive history of ekphrasis (descriptive writing about artworks), nor does it track the co-evolution of image and word. Instead, he meditates on different facets of poetry and painting under a series of chapter headings that emphasize their binary relation: “Visible and Invisible,” “Apples and Oranges,” “Desire and Loss.” He doesn’t offer a single line of argument. There are contests: the old contest between reality and images, first staged by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, and given a new twist in Dante’s Commedia; and a contest between poetic image and painted image, such as Petrarch staged in his sonnets praising Simone Martini's portrait of Laura. And of course there are contests between artists. A crucial one is the painter Zeuxis’s famous competition with Parrhasius, as related by Pliny. Zeuxis’s talent for mimesis was such that his painting of grapes attracted real birds, which flew up to peck at them. But his triumph was short lived: when he demanded that Parrhasius pull back the curtain on his painting, the joke was on him: the curtain itself was painted. Whereupon Zeuxis conceded the prize, “saying that whereas he had deceived birds Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.”

Deception: this is the crux of all criticism of image-making, whether linguistic or pictorial. Parrhasius’ particularly egregious deception resides in the fact that he “paints an invisible picture, that is, the one Zeuxis imagines behind the curtain.” The most famous Platonic argument against art (it’s in The Republic) is an ontological one — pictures are thrice removed from Ultimate Reality (the realm of the eternal Forms — but, as Barkan demonstrates, it’s the rhetorical nature of image-making that really perturbs the philosopher. Pictures aren't just neutral reflections of things in this world, much less the eternal one. And this is why pictorial and linguistic practices are so often yoked together; they are interchangeable not when they are mimicking nature but when they exploit their medium to emphasize perceptual differences and introduce relativism into discourse. Plato, Barkan tells us, “uses the fact that the same thing can look different from different vantage points as an analogy to the dangerously conflicted and changeable state of imitative poets and their audiences.” This has political consequences for his ideal state: artifice (of either painting or poetry) leads to perspectivism, perspectivism to relativism, relativism to division and ultimately deception.

If Plato's argument seems slightly recherché in our age of riotously proliferating images and information, it's worth remembering that, all over the world, there are still taboos around depictions of sacred objects, including mimetic representations of God's creatures. Even some poets have accepted it: W.H. Auden, after his conversion to Christianity, decided that poetry was after all a frivolous activity, a copy of a copy of God's mind. And since you can't wade into a controversy in American poetry without hearing complaints that it is dead, irrelevant, unreadable, or inauthentic, it is heartening to remember that these are just the latest episodes of a long argument through the ages.

Read on, read on; Mlinko also includes some Ashbery....

Originally Published: March 18th, 2013