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Book of the Week: Poets on Painters


This week's recommended book is 'Poets on Painters', edited by J. D. McClatchy (University of California Press, 1990).

A friend gave this to me a few months ago (or at least I think it was a gift!). Several of the entries at the start of the book are familiar essays from the early twentieth century, written by poets in defence of the new art movements of the time. Examples: Ezra Pound on Vorticism, Gertrude Stein's essay 'Pictures', which is from a series of lectures given as part of a lecture tour of the USA in 1931, part-sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art.

But the value of the book lies in the fact that it gathers up a lot of shorter, occasional pieces that don't often get reprinted. They are mainly by American poets - Stevens, cummings, Rexroth, Creeley, Ashbery - but they are full of interesting thoughts on art, which remain interesting even if I don't agree with them. For example, in Against Abstract Expressionism, Randall Jarrell writes:

"Continued long enough, a quantitative change becomes qualitative. The latest tradition of painting, abstract expressionism, seems to me revolutionary. It is not, I think, what it is sometimes called: the purified essence of that earlier tradition which has found a temporary conclusion in painters like Bonnard, Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Kokoschka. It is the specialized, intensive exploitation of one part of such painting, and the rejection of other parts and of the whole."

I don't agree that abstract expressionism rejects the whole of the earlier tradition, but the rest of it is well said. And he shows prescience by the end of the essay when he writes: "Man and the world are all that they ever were -- their attractions are, in the end, irresistible; the painter will not hold out against them long."

One of my favourite pieces is by Ted Hughes, concerning the great woodcut artist Leonard Baskin, with whom Hughes collaborated. Hughes description of the essence of Baskin's work is a wonderful summary of the whole effect of woodcut printmaking:

"The internal lattice of refracted, converging intensities, which lie there on the paper as a superbly achieved solidity of form and texture, in fact compose a web -- a transparency, something to be looked through."

You can still order this fascinating book on Amazon, I think (click here).

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