When I first encountered The Death of Chatterton, a nineteenth century painting by Henry Wallis, in the National Gallery in London, I was entranced. A few Tube stops later (having dutifully minded the gap) I was holed up in a dingy hotel room “painting” my own monochromatic version of Chatterton in lines of ink.
Little did I know I was committing ekphrasis. (Not to worry. It’s perfectly legal in England.) And it seems that poets have been getting away with it for years. As a matter of fact, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens famously performed this act on the very same painting, Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus.
What I was doing in that dingy hotel room was the very thing Auden and Stevens did. Which was to “describe”–as the term derives from Greek–a work of art. It turns out that ekphrasis is nothing untoward after all. And, while my effort was undoubtedly less accomplished than theirs, it was surely just as inspired.
For each of the arts has proven a faithful muse to the others ever since the first ancient artfully proclaimed a truth with a lyre in hand.
Nevertheless, poems that lead to visual art seem less common than the other way round. It just seems more or less natural (at least for a writer/poet) to see, for instance, a painting in a museum, and, struck with wonder, wish to share that wonder in words. So, it was with great delight, that I discovered the book, entitled, Gongora, the ultimate coffee table book. And I mean that in the best possible sense. Which is to say, I love coffee and books. I’ll admit I’m lukewarm on tables. I mean, well, they’re tables.
Anyway, this book, Gongora, is something special. Not only does it collect twenty sonnets of Luis de Gongora y Argote, a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare’s, gracefully rendered into English by Alan S. Trueblood, but, it also provides the original language text enface, produced in the extraordinary longhand of one, Pablo Picasso, complete with his accompanying “doodles.” Seeing these sketches is akin to listening to Maria Callas singing in the shower. Or reading Einstein’s thoughts.
They are, in essence, the highest order of marginalia. Surreal footnotes, if you like. And I’ll be surprised if you don’t.