The Art in Poetry & the Poetry in Art, Part One

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 11:00 AM
Getty Museum Panel April 25, 2002

There was a curious and probably terminal moment in the relation between Picasso and Gertrude Stein that came at a time – in 1935 – when Picasso found himself unable to paint and turned to writing, to poetry, as an alternative form of expression. When he showed some of the resultant work to Stein – or read it to her as the story goes – her response was quick and unequivocal. “The egotism of a painter,” she wrote and lectured him in explanation, “is an entirely different egotism than the egotism of a writer.” And again, recounting the event on her own: “This was his life for two years, of course he who could write, write so well with drawings and with colours, knew very well that to write with words was, for him, not to write at all.” In saying which, she deliberately extended her conclusion to all painters, who are by nature and by vocation different from all writers.

Some such separation of the arts is probably a more common idea than that of their unification, though hardly a settled point, either then or now. A somewhat similar view, for example, turns up in Stein’s younger contemporary, Ezra Pound, who demanded in his 1914 Vortex manifesto a separate defining characteristic for each of a range of arts:

Every concept, every emotion presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. it belongs to the art of this form. if sound, to music; if formed words, to literature; the image, to poetry; form, to design; colour in Position, to painting; form or design in three planes, to sculpture; movement to the dance or to the rhythm of music or of dances.

Pound of course was speaking here of a separation of the arts and not of a restriction on the capacity of an artist to move from one to another. (He himself, it should be pointed out, experimented later with musical composition [an operatic work called Villon], to say nothing of the occasional construction of furniture, which he did, on the model perhaps [or perhaps not] of William Morris.)

It’s curious too that where Pound asserts that “the vorticist will use only (italics mine) the primary media of his art,” he cites as his primary examples “in painting, Kandinski, Picasso.” While Kandinsky in 1914 was already into something like a painting based on “colour in position,” he was also experimenting with poetry and multimedia performance. Concerning his book of poems, Klänge [Sounds], Hugo Ball wrote in 1917: “Nowhere else, even among the Futurists, has anyone attempted such a daring purification of language.” And to mix things even further, Kandinsky had already, in the Blaue Reiter Almanac, published the text and score for Der gelbe Klang [The Yellow Sound], as his own modernist/expressionist version of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

At this point let me just suggest that Pound’s and even Kandinsky’s crossing of genre boundaries was rather modest – even at times rather hokey – compared to Stein’s far-reaching, truly radical experiments with language. Still, as practitioners they were open to the crossing – Kandinsky a germinal figure in that direction – while other artists went even further, functioned as language poets / language artists (so to speak) or as creators of unprecedented works in defiance of all genres. Among those who sensed an underlying unity of poetry and art – and practiced it – were Schwitters, Marinetti, Arp, Picabia, Apollinaire, and Hartley, and to a lesser degree (perhaps), Klee, Breton, Lorca, Miro, Ernst, Duchamp, and Dali. (Mallarmé, whose Coup de dès comes at the end of the nineteenth century, might be another example of a poet creating a major and germinal work of verbovisual art.)

There is with all of this a strong sense of the interpenetration of poetry and art, along with a welcoming of artists who worked both fields or – better – fused them. Collaborations between visual and verbal artists were even more common – in books, in performances, in manifestos. I am thinking here of the activity around Russian futurist books, Italian Futurist performances, Dada evenings at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and later in Paris and Berlin, and the profusion of collaborative livres d’art that involved most of the major artists and poets of French modernism. (These are only the best known examples among many others.) Of the artists who crossed over on their own, it seems to me that those in the early part of the twentieth century were primarily visual artists (painters) rather than poets – conceivably because increasingly open forms of poetry and the blurring of distinctions between poetry and prose allowed any literate (writing) person to enter the ranks, while painting and sculpture retained a more specialized status, at least until the final decades of the twentieth century. (At that point the hybridizations were widespread and extraordinary.)

* * *

Having said this much, I will now limit myself to a brief consideration of two twentieth-century artists, Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters, and try a much too rapid assessment of what they were able to achieve as poets.

Both Picasso and Schwitters – much like some of the other crossover artists I’ve mentioned present themselves at some point as being primarily “poets.” (This is possibily an indication of the prestige around the idea of “poetry” and “poet” at a time when the idea of “art” was already coming into question.) Schwitters, who was into the making of poetry (language art) throughout his artistic life cited poetry as a primary activity and included it always as one of the arts whose boundaries from the other arts he intended to erase. And Picasso, for all of his acclaim as the century’s principal visual artist, was reported to have said of himself, “that long after his death his writing would gain recognition and encyclopedias would say: ‘Picasso, Pablo Ruiz – Spanish poet who dabbled in painting, drawing and sculpture.’” (Miguel Acoca, “Picasso Turns a Busy 90 Today,” International Herald Tribune, 25 October 1971)

Picasso’s engagement with poetry and with poets goes back to his early days in Paris, but the writing itself comes only in the mid-1930s, when it erupts with considerable force and continues until the creation of an ultimate masterwork, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, in 1959. The Cubist connections are best known and involve an interplay with a range of poets living and working in Paris – Stein, Apollinaire, Jacob, Reverdy, and Salmon, among others. The chalked sign over his studio door in Montmartre read au rendez-vous des poètes, and the exchanges with poet friends would have been not only about the new painting but the new poetry as well. (The “new spirit” or “new mind,” Apollinaire had called it in a famous essay.) Writes his principal biographer John Richardson about the ambience of what he calls Picasso’s “think tank”: “It enabled the artist to become vicariously a poet – a poet in paint, not yet a poet in words.” And even so the verbally dense newspaper collages and isolated stenciled words that marked his Cubist canvases give us a measure of how far he had already gone in opening his art to language.

Through all his work in fact there was a “need for poetry” (the phrase here is John Cage’s, in relation to his own writings), and that need brought Picasso to an alignment – in the 1920s and 30s – with the younger poets who made up the core of Paris-based Surrealism. Prior to the 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism and the founding that December of La Révolution Surréaliste, members of the about-to-be Surrealist group countersigned Breton’s essay “Hommage à Picasso,” which appeared in the June 20th issue of Paris-Journal. From 1924 to 1929 works by Picasso were reproduced in eight of the eleven issues of La Révolution Surréaliste, and he was often cited by Breton and other poets as an exemplary Surrealist figure – “their prophet,” Patrick O’Brian writes, with sufficient quotations to back it up. Or Breton, who had “claim[ed] him” as “one of us”: “If Surrealism is to adopt a line of conduct, it has only to pass where Picasso has already passed and where he will pass again.”

The full engagement with poetry came in 1935 – a hiatus in his painting practice touched off by a financially distressing divorce but also, I would suggest, by a sense of the impending war that was building up in Spain with dire consequences for the rest of Europe. Here is how it first comes into his notebook writing as an extended piece of unpunctuated and multiphasic work of prose and poetry, dated 18 april XXXV:

if I should go outside the wolves would come to eat out of my hand just as my room would seem to be outside of me my other earnings would go off around the world smashed into smithereens but what is there to do today it’s thursday everything is closed it’s cold the sun is whipping anybody I could be and there’s no helping it so many things come up so that they throw the roots down by their hairs out in the bull ring stenciled into portraits not to make a big deal of the day’s allotments but today has been a winner and the hunter back with his accounts askew how great this year has been for putting in preserves like these and thus and so and always things are being left behind some tears are laughing without telling tales again except around the picture frame the news arrived that this time we would only see the spring at night and that a spider crawls across the paper where I’m writing that the gift is here the others putting ties on for the holidays that we’ve already had it for the nonce and that it’s just the start this time around

And so on for another twenty pages of margin-to-margin writing, which would be typical of most of his later poetry – not automatic in any strict sense but heavily worked over and marking the beginning of several years of poetry, which he would practice sometime as an almost daily exercise. (The big prose poems have no titles in fact but only dates.) The let-up came around 1941, but it was during the war years in fact that he wrote his two plays, Desire Trapped By the Tail and The Four Little Girls, and in the 1950s he produced two major works of poetry, Hunk of Skin and The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (the title of the last – if not its content – derived from El Greco’s great painting)

There is little that is trivial in Picasso’s work as a poet, and the energy and rapid-fire shift of images brought from Surrealists and Breton the response (totally different from Stein’s) that Picasso had joined the ranks of those who were pushing poetry, pushing language to its limits, even in some ways beyond the workings of the Surrealists themselves. So Michel Leiris, in a later overview, declared that Picasso was “an insatiable player with words ... [one of those who, like] James Joyce ... in his Finnegans Wake, ... displayed an equal capacity to promote language as a real thing (one might say) . . . and to use it with as much dazzling liberty.”

INTERLUDE & READING: THE DREAM & LIE OF FRANCO

[The Picasso excerpts are taken from The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, & Other Poems, edited by myself & Pierre Joris, published & still available from Damon Krukowski’s Exact Change. The section of this talk on the poetry of Kurt Schwitters will be presented in a later posting.]

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