Poetry and Art: Liaisons Between Art Forms

How do images and words interact--in an everyday context, in a philosophical context, in an artistic context? Are verbal and visual communication truly separate, and even if so, to what degree can they work in tandem? How can they be used together to complement and enhance each other? The arts span many modes of communication. Although categorized by medium and genre, all art shares intrinsic characteristics: the pursuit of expression, influence by context, an emotional impact, and the artist’s purpose. Thus, the arts of images and words don’t operate as differently from each other as is commonly assumed. The two modes of communication can convey the same ideas and be born of the same ideas; they can even exchange ideas. Their differences can facilitate a discussion between them, between their creators, and between their consumers. The greatest beneficiaries of interactions of poetry with visual art are indeed the readers and viewers. An exploration of the relationships between poetry and art reveals that they can interact in myriad ways. No single example, dictum, or definition can describe this relationship, because the interactions are so diverse and their usage so varied amongst different artists and poets. Certainly, though, poetry and visual art can each be used to enrich the significance of the other purposefully by integration and collaboration or naturally by similarity and association. The contact between them may occur amongst the members of a movement, an artistic school; it may occur directly when a work in one mode references one in the other; it may occur within a mind capable of creating art in both modes. The scenarios born of poetry’s and art’s coexistence and interplay, though, is too complex to be contained in a list, or even in any in-depth investigation; there are too many nuanced possibilities. A few snapshots of major ways poetry and art have interacted in history, then, must serve as exemplary of the relationship.


Historically, artists and poets have pooled brainpower by forming schools. Although often informal, even named by outsiders, these groups produce work that bears powerful connections across the genres. A school’s poetry and art demonstrate derivation from the same sources: common time, place, concept, purpose, and sentiment. The personal interaction between individuals is also important. If a painter and a poet are friends, if they share coffee and exchange ideas, each influences the other’s work noticeably and even intimately. The criticism and inspiration exchanged amongst the members of a school establish a character in the work of all of them, one recognizable to the astute viewer. Through purposeful or casual collaboration they plant ideas in each other’s artistic consciousnesses, expounding on each of their potential, their artistic capital. Members of a school may even have been originally attracted to each other due to similarities in their artistic philosophies.

The New York School of the 1950s and ‘60s spanned painting, poetry, drama, dance, and music. Its members participated in the postmodern avante-garde through companionship and collaboration (3). Their aimless philosophy and rich understanding of the interaction of different genres produced stream-of-consciousness poetry and abstract expressionist painting. The popular faces of each are Frank O’Hara and Jackson Pollock, respectively.

Juxtaposing Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 and O’Hara’s “Rhapsody” does not immediately highlight their similarities.CRI_223805.jpg
The feelings each work evokes in the viewer and reader dovetail with each other, though; meditation on the emotional impact of these works reveals the connection between them. Both Pollock and O’Hara loosen their adherence to traditional technique and rigid composition in favor of an evocative expression of their inner emotional states. The painting’s energetic, dancing lines and the poem’s scattered, drifting anecdotes invite the viewer and reader to absorb the essence of the work instead of analyzing it, instead of even thinking about it too much. Just as One: Number 31, 1950 depicts no subject, “Rhapsody” discusses no clear issue, tells no one clear narrative, describes no clear scene. Yet, it instills in the reader a wistful sense of the poet’s wandering thoughts. Pollock’s work conveys instead his fervent, even aggressive energy, but each work in its essence captures a feeling--rather than making a point--nonetheless (6). The drops of paint splattered around the border of the canvas are analogous in their loose, rousing energy to the tangential asides from the back of O’Hara’s mind: “is Tibet historically a part of China?” in a stanza and a poem about his day in New York City (1).

The New York School heralded the abandonment of standard technique: form in art and meter in poetry, among other standards that were becoming stale in their eyes (3). These artists produced their art with a vigor that was natural, not practiced. The work is vivacious, not scrupulous. Pollock laid his canvases on the floor so he could waltz around them and even stand "in the painting" (5); O'Hara wrote his poems on napkins and stuffed them into desk drawers to be forgotten (13). The School, through the power of both artists and poets, represented new ideas in the art and literary worlds. The figures of Pollock and O'Hara changed those worlds through individual power, but a power that fed off each other's art forms.

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Ekphrasis: “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art” (12)
Ekphrastic poetry provides a commentary on visual art while remaining in the realm of the arts itself. This commentary creates an experience that academic criticism does not. It regards both the work and the viewer’s experience with it. The speaker’s observations of the work may dovetail with the reader’s observations of it, or they may contribute ones that the reader did not make. Thus, the viewer of a painting can learn from the ekphrastic poet or relate to them. Via the viewer, then, the relationship between the poem and the painting is not one-way. The painting provides subject matter for the poem, but the poem can also add to the significance of the painting. Although it does not directly contribute to the content of the piece--there is no obvious visual component born from the poem--it can enhance the viewer’s experience of looking at the painting and thinking about it later. Isn’t that the point of contemporary art: not the work and the paint itself, but the experience of looking at it and the thoughts born from that experience? An ekphrastic poem and the work of art it concerns complement each other and add to each other’s artistic value (4).

Georgian poet Alfred Corn’s “Seeing All the Vermeers” describes his observations and analysis of every known Vermeer painting (7). His reflection ties them all together as he provides his personal emotional response as well as connections to contemporary issues. Thus he draws the viewer’s attention into the paintings’ details and out to the paintings’ significance in a larger context: he both focuses and expands the reader’s view. Each stanza is dedicated to a single painting. The poem is written in first person and casually: By then it was set: No matter how many years or flights / it took, I’d see all of Vermeer--which helps explain / the Vienna stop we made that spring, and our instant beeline / to An Artist in His Studio (called, today, The Allegory of Fame) (7). Clearly, Corn’s piece is not just about the art itself, but also about Jan Vermeer himself. This long, winding poem bears the mysterious aura that does any discussion of the man. Corn narrates his attempt to understand Vermeer, to achieve so elusive a closeness with the artist. Of course, visiting every piece in person is not a pursuit feasible in the study of most artists, but the intrigueingly tiny size of Vermeer’s body of work makes it possible in that of him.


In the first stanza, which describes Young Woman Sleeping, Corn provides the reader with a setting: “Met Museum , 1965” (7). He makes clear immediately that this is a piece not just about the paintings, but about the speaker’s experience of seeing them. The setting is not the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, perhaps Vermeer’s room with the window on the left and the map on the back wall; it is the Metropolitan Museum of art in 1965, where Alfred Corn stands before Vermeer’s aging painting. He makes no conclusions, forges no unique interpretations of Young Woman Sleeping in this first stanza. He only lovingly, beautifully describes every detail of its composition, every object Vermeer has articulated so well: the woven carpet, the bowl of apples, the used dinnerware, the woman’s pose, the room behind her. He even identifies the element of mystery so characteristic in Vermeer’s paintings: here, the “framed mirror--or a painting / too shadowed to make out” (7). He closes his meditation on this work with an evocative reference to more mystery, and a lingering ellipsis: “Next to it, / (certitude) one window, shuttered for the duration…” (7). Corn has whisked the reader away into the trance of the painting, but the short stanza that follows brings back the real-world narrative of his own experience. “That dream” is the woman’s dream; he is describing his personal reaction to the painting now, and he is comparing it to his surroundings. His absorption in it was “a lull” in a busy day. The following stanzas, each dedicated to a different Vermeer, continue the alteration of description of the work itself, conveyance of Corn's interpretation of it, and narration of his experience visiting it.

Young Woman Sleeping


Officer and Laughing Girl


The Lacemaker


There is no more direct a connection between works of poetry and art, of course, than when they are made by a single individual. Many poets and artists dabble in the other field recreationally, but fewer become prominent in both poetry and visual art.

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Eighteenth-century Briton William Blake channelled his artistic compulsions through both poetry and art. Delusional religious visions he experienced since a young age inspired Romantic subject matter (8). His work expressed his fascination with themes like spirituality and transcendence; his illuminated books include All Religions are One, There is No Religion, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Europe a Prophecy, The Book of Innocence, and The Book of Experience (11). These illuminated books showcase his poems alongside his own illustrations of them. Blake based his ideas in part in the format of medieval manuscripts; he drew from Gothic art since the engraver to whom he was an apprentice at fourteen assigned him sketching trips to Westminster Abbey (8).

These “composite works” give his artistic vision a complete, rounded quality: his fantastical ideas are expressed verbally and visually, intertwining on the page. In each “The Little Girl Found” of Songs of Innocence (left) and “The Tyger” of Songs of Experience (right), a tree at the base of which the poem’s characters sit climbs up the side of the text; in the former, a vine borders the text on the other side, and in the latter, branches snake in between stanzas. The description of the scene with language and the representation of it in an image exist together in the same space, thus making the creations of Blake’s imagination much more tangible than if expressed via only a single mode.

Blake builds his own world between the two art forms. The character Urizen, an invention of Blake’s who represents the corrupting power of reason for which he holds contempt, is featured in many of his prints, such as The Ancient of Days (below) (2). This engraving served as the frontispiece for Europe, a Prophecy (10). As is typical of his work, it shows a narrative from a religious vision and a Bible verse: “When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass on the face of the depth” (Proverbs 8:27) (9).
The poems and the image that introduces them together address this idea of Creation and make whole in the reader and viewer’s mind the realm of spirituality and fantasy that Blake envisions. The artistic style of The Ancient of Days is even clearly influenced by Blake’s commitment to poetry. Because he often illustrated his own work, other writers often commissioned his engravings for theirs, including Dante for his Divine Comedy (11). Thus, his work became very illustrative, combining the fanciful quality of the Romantic movement with the graphic communicative quality of art that has an illustrative purpose, reminding the viewer of the work of contemporary fantasy and science fiction illustrators like Boris Vallejo and James Jean. The understated modeling, emphasized lines, and compelling composition that fits the page instead of the scene show that Blake’s focus is his illustrative purpose. His art is changed by his poetry, his poetry’s significance is enhanced by his art, his vision is served by their cooperation, and his work is remembered for their coexistence.

The Ancient of Days

List of Sources

(1) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171386

(2) Art History: Revised Second Edition by Marilyn Stokstad

(3) __http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/06/04/specials/koch-ny.html__

(4) http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/notes-ekphrasis

(5) http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78386

(6) http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O:AD:E:4675&page_number=1&template_id=6&sort_order=1§ion_id=T068492#skipToContent

(7) __http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/seeing-all-vermeers__

(8) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-blake

(9) __http://www.jstor.org/stable/750024__

(10) http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/nov2007.html

(11) __http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/william-blake__

(12) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ekphrasis

(13) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/frank-ohara