Imitate: When Art Starts To Speak…

By Catarina Wilk

Let’s pretend! You go to see a beautiful art installation. Interesting-looking objects are on display, paintings with vibrant colours are hanging on the wall, artful sculptures are shown in the middle of the exhibition room. What comes to your mind?
Well, the greek biographer and essayist Plutarch once said that “painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks“, so art in all its beautiful variations inspires people in many different ways.
Whether it be in fashion, film, music or literature, it has always been an inspirational source of creativity and especially poets have used art as a source of inspiration and stimulation for many centuries.

Today, we look at poems that “imitate“ art works and interpret them in a different way. When art turns into poetry…

Let’s start with the Romantic poet John Keats. You might have come across his “Ode on a Grecian Urn“ at some point. Keats was inspired to write his poem after having read two works by the English artist Benjamin Haydon. On top of that, “The Parthenon Marbles“, a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, had an impact on Keats’ idea that classical Greek art was idealistic.

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“Ode on a Grecian Urn” transcribed by George Keats in 1820

With the beginning of the 20th century, writers turned increasingly towards paintings and sculptures.
In this respect, another great example of an art work that kind of turned into a poem is Edwin Romanzo Elmer’s „Mourning Picture“ which Elmer created after his 9-year-old daughter Effie had died.

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Mourning Picture by Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1890)

75 the years later, Adrienne Rich took the painting as an inspiration for her poem that bears the same name as the painting itself.

Mourning Picture by Adrienne Rich (1965) 

They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rocker 
out under the lilac bush, 
and my father and mother darkly sit there, in black clothes. 
Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill, 
my doll lies in her wicker pram 
gazing at western Massachusetts. 
This was our world. 
I could remake each shaft of grass 
feeling its rasp on my fingers, 
draw out the map of every lilac leaf 
or the net of veins on my father’s  
grief-tranced hand.  

Out of my head, half-bursting, 
still filling, the dream condenses– 
shadows, crystals, ceilings, meadows, globes of dew. 
Under the dull green of the lilacs, out in the light 
carving each spoke of the pram, the turned porch-pillars, 
under high early-summer clouds, 
I am Effie, visible and invisible, 
remembering and remembered. 

Moving on to Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb” which was published in his collection of poems entitled “The Whitsun Weddings” in 1964. It is by far the greatest post-war poem that was inspired by a 14th-century table tomb; a single piece of art.

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Arundel Tomb in Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin (1964)

Side by side, their faces blurred
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love

Elizabeth Jennings is known for her poems that are a direct response to different paintings.
One of her most popular poems describes Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.

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Self-Portrait of Rembrandt, 1669.

Elizabeth Jennings (1975)

You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush’s care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here

Is a humility at one with craft.
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.

Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times. You also plucked the past
And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,
And old age can divest,

With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint’s to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with.

Without any doubt, art works inspire us in various different ways and one could even say that they “talk” to us when you have a closer look at them. So maybe you will feel inspired to get creative when attending your next art exhibition…You never know?!

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