What Is Color in Poetry
It’s more like a corkscrew than a path!
— Lewis Carroll
not a path, but a corkscrew: to begin
I cite Lewis Carroll from a book called The Rainbow Book: Being a Collection of Essays & Illustrations Devoted to Rainbows in Particular & Spectral Sequences in General, Focusing on the Meaning of Color (Physically & Metaphysically) from Ancient to Modern Times. This color compendium is devoted to thinking about the meaning behind our visible spectrum that has, in many ways, inspired this entire essay. It is an important book to me because I spied it once at Joshua Beckman’s house several years ago and it was like a dormant light was turned on.
I think when Joshua saw me and my sleeping light all lit up, he was afraid I would steal his book, knowing how much I think about color and poetry. I must confess that I didn’t steal it, but that I thought about it and after I left his house bought two copies for myself.
The quotation within the book begins a discussion of the gyre — the term Yeats used to assert that time is not a linear path but a swirling spectrum of events and occurrences. I think our idea that the color spectrum is a linear construct is just as faulty as our idea that time is. Poems know this, that neither time, nor visible color, nor being, falls down a straight path. What is meaning if not something you can’t find in a neat set of steps? A poem is special because its logic is emotional and aesthetic and resists the traditional ways logic seeks to jail itself. Color is special because there is no way to pin it down. It has a live wire that illuminates its frequency. Of course, a poem does, too.
I digress already. I mean to tell you now before I totally begin that this essay will explore the relationships between color and poetry. It will delve into some ideas by color theorists, as well as discuss specific poems that use color “well.” It will also give gentle suggestions for where future poetry can go in using color in new ways.
In the spirit of disclosure, I must tell you that this essay has taken many forms over the past year. I have written parts of it, abandoned it, taken it up again. I put my ideas on color in a future lecture called “On the Materiality of the Imagination.” The topic is bigger than I could ever even begin today. And in throwing all my colors into the wind over several months, I wrote this simple couplet:
I love colorAnd that is all that I love.
It may be that this really is the truth. I have always loved color. I always forget that my mother is a painter and what that might mean for me and the way I read poetry. I recently told some friends casually that my mother was a painter and art historian, and one of them, a wonderful poet named Emily Pettit, said, “Well, it all makes sense — that’s why you love color.”
It’s true that my house growing up was always ablaze with color, bright objects, and paint everywhere. Every vacation involved either purchasing an art object or visiting a museum. Color was our religion. My mother hung Navajo rugs in almost every room and when I close my eyes to this day I see the pulse of the bright red, orange, and teal triangles of our living room eye dazzler.
All families have big issues that they discuss constantly, but our big issue was color. Instead of baseball or politics, my mother and I talked a lot about what made a particular object come alive.
One lifelong family discussion was a wooden rocking chair my mother made and stained for me when I was two. She asked me what color I wanted it stained: red or blue. I chose blue clearly, but she thought to herself, What toddler has that kind of color preference? Growing up, being the pain in the ass that I was, this was always a point of contention for me and I always found reason to bring it up. “That tiny red rocking chair should have been blue!” I’d exclaim whenever I was in a bad mood. As a teenager, we had a choice between a red or blue lounge chair and, of course, blue finally won.
When I first started writing poems, around age seven, I would memorize them and recite them to anyone who would listen. One I would always recite was called “Blue dignity,” so I will share it with you now, because hey, why not:
Blue dignityIs suddenly blackAnd brown and grayOther colors that cause flackA sapphire posesAmongst a bed of rosesAnd strength and triumph remainWhere graceful refrainOh copper-colored creamWhat did I dreamDon’t replay the pastOr snakes will wrathViolets violets of the seaWhy did youLeave me
Perhaps because of this personal history, I can’t help but see that color has a kind of bi-directional meaning making. Especially with art and everyday objects. One can chose what color they are. Choosing an object’s color is much like naming a baby. You can find the right one, hopefully. You can paint, restain, reupholster. Color is a malleable thing, based on mood, on time. Color can change or can stay the same and react to people and its environment. In this way, color is a live wire. When poems get color right, there is a kind of color fate to the pairing between visible and energetic frequency and the word, and the sound of the word.
Perhaps Rimbaud got the connection between color and language best in his poem “Vowels,” which sets out to illustrate a colored alphabet within a poem. A translation by Paul Schmidt and Peter Bauer goes like this:
Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O — vowels,Some day I will open your silent pregnancies:A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies,Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties.Pits of night; E, candor of sand and pavilions,High glacial spears, white kings, trembling Queen-Anne’s lace;I, bloody spittle, laughter dribbling from a faceIn wild denial or in anger, vermilions;U, ... divine movement of viridian seas,Peace of pastures animal-strewn, peace of calm linesDrawn on foreheads worn with heavy alchemies;O, supreme Trumpet, harsh with strange stridencies,Silences traced in angels and astral designs:O ... OMEGA ... the violet light of His Eyes!
In this poem, Rimbaud sends up the one-to-one correspondence that Edmond Jabès talks about in The Book of Questions between a progression of letters as a progression of time and a life, as Jabès writes:
The letters of the alphabet are contemporaries of death. They are stages of death turned into signs. Death of eternal death. But there are other signs which the letters covet, erased signs reproduced by gestures at the heart of what is named. Thus the bird’s take-off contains all forms of flight.
Perhaps to name a letter is to name a color, too; is to set a finite progression of colors and letters and things that fold upon each other in the voraciously eating vortex of time. That is not a corkscrew but a path. That is all moments, all colors, letters, all forms of flight. That is the once-dormant light all lit up.
Perhaps when we connect color to language, to sound, in the space of a poem we reconnect and resist what Breton has named the tragic bifurcation of the so-called real and dream worlds that happens to all adults. Perhaps this is poetry’s purpose in our lives, to reconnect the real and dream worlds to one’s own dormant light. Of course,
I believe the easiest way to do this with language is through the perfect use of color.
what of image, what of color
I have always thought that H.D.’s poems are so perfect because they focus closely on images and make sure that her picture of whatever she mentions is shared completely with her reader. Take, for example, her poem “Sea Violet”:
The white violetis scented on its stalk,the sea-violetfragile as agate,lies fronting all the windamong the torn shellson the sand-bank.The greater blue violetsflutter on the hill,but who would change for thesewho would change for theseone root of the white sort?Violetyour grasp is frailon the edge of the sand-hill,but you catch the light —frost, a star edges with its fire.
H.D. focuses on the image of the sea violet for all three stanzas. Even when she describes the “greater blue violets” in the second stanza, it is to compare them to the sea violet and to show their ultimate unworthiness.
The sea violet, described so well, over and over again, turned over again and again, to be peered at from many angles by the reader, becomes part of a shared imagination with the reader. By the end of the poem, H.D. and the reader share the image of the sea violet, its gorgeous white flower-body embodied as imaginative reality.
Part of H.D.’s achievement, I might argue, has to do with her keen use of color. It is the white of the sea violet and the blue of the other violets that serve to distinguish both so simply and so dramatically. Part of this is probably because of her beliefs as an Imagist and in keeping with Pound’s dictum that a poem must give, “direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective” and “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” It is the perfect choice of colors that gives direct treatment of a thing within a poem, makes sure no word does not contribute to the presentation, and makes the shared imagination (the shared imaginative space, in material) of the reader and the poet, at least for one second in communion. The violets in H.D.’s poem have been agreed upon between poet and reader, at least in part, because of their colors.
H.D. famously called herself the modern Sappho and part of her love of Sappho seems to be her love of Sappho’s use of colors. If you have ever read Sappho, particularly Anne Carson’s gorgeous translation, you know how vividly Sappho used the colors violet and yellow, and how they appear in constant vibration with each other due to their complementary natures. Sappho writes of the “one with violets in her lap,” “having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak,” a “bridegroom / her hair placing the lyre / Dawn with gold sandals.”
In her essay, “The Wise Sappho,” H.D. writes:
Impassioned roses are dead.
“Little, but all rose” — true there is a tint of rich color (invariably we find it), violets, purple woof of cloth, scarlet garments, dyed fastening of a sandal, the lurid, crushed and perished hyacinth, stains on cloth and flesh and parchment.
There is gold too. Was it a gold rose the poet meant?...
I think of the words of Sappho as these colors, or states rather, transcending color yet containing (as great heat the compass of the spectrum) all color.
Color is not simply a decorative element in a poem. Color creates an expanse; a field, a shared formal field, with which to plant more shared components of the material imagination, a poem. Color makes this space bigger, this imaginative space more specific and bigger, gives it weight, makes it solid.
Dorothea Lasky was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She earned a BA at Washington University and an MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has published three collections of poetry, AWE (2007), and Black Life (2010), and Thunderbird (2012), as well as several chapbooks, including the polemical...