On Poetry

by Susan Tallman

November 2018

For millennia poetry was humanity’s highest expression—words arranged to give eternal life to ineffable experiences and aspirations. Sometime in the 20th century, however, poetry became a punch line: a place holder for the effete or impractical; the thing every parent supposedly dreads to hear mentioned in the same breath as “career plans.” Cast in the role of the moody cousin to the socially gregarious novel, poetry has something in common with printmaking in its persona as painting’s underperforming stepchild. The idea of poetry’s unpopularity may be overplayed (the NEA’s 2017 Survey of Public Participation notes that more Americans are reading poetry now than at any point since the survey began 15 years ago), but it is safe to say that the artists who choose to work with poets, and the poets who conspire with artists, are not in it for the public glory. They are in it because in the expectant gap between word and image lies a universe they want a part of. Or in the words of Jane Kent, whose collaboration with poet Major Jackson appears here as our ninth Art in Art in Print Project: “You do it out of perversity.”

This issue of Art in Print is a paean to that perversity, in the sense of a passion pursued without regard to marketability or audience share. In addition to asking art historians, curators and artists to write on poetry-print fusions, we asked a number of contemporary poets to seek out a print as the jumping off point of a poem.

Mary Jo Bang responded to Etienne Leopold Trouvelot’s lithograph of an 1879 solar eclipse; Timothy Donnelly chose Peter Grippe’s 1946 abstract etching Escape Into Time; Brett Fletcher Lauer engages William Hogarth's chock-a-block satire, The Bathos, or the Manner of Sinking, in Sublime Paintings (1764); while Monica de la Torre took on the subject of Suzanne McClelland’s Domestic Terrorist Cheri (2015).

In his essay, artist Paul Coldwell reflects on Patrick Caulfield’s 1960s screenprints—pop and plangent—after poems by Jules Laforgue. David Paisey examines Massimo Danielis’s recent lithograph after Goethe. Writing from inside artist/poet collaborations, Deryn Rees Jones details the recasting of her poem Perpetual Night as ceramic plates by artist Charlotte Hodes; Alexander Massouras joins forces with poet Kate Wakeling; and Michael Phillips explains his recreation of William Blake’s relief etched plates.

Several writers focus on works that, like Blake’s, consist of words and images from the same hand: Augusto de Campo’s perfect concrete poem (Marjorie Perloff); Martin Wong’s (Untitled) Nutz Boy, scrawled on crumpled newsprint (Sergio Bessa); and Carl Pope Jr.’s poster poetics (James Wehn).

The importance of early 20th-century Russians in the radical rethinking of word and image comes through in Nancy Perloff’s account of the Russian Futurist book Mirskontsa, and in Stephen Woodall’s discussion of La Prose du Transsibérien, the ecstatic, monumental folding “book” by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars.

Looking back several centuries, to times and places where poetry and prints joined together in broadly popular entertainments, Catherine Bindman uncovers three 15th-century engravings after Petrarch, and Chang Yuchen elucidates a woodcut card game by Chen Hongshou based on characters from the classic Yuan Dynasty novel Water Margin.

Meanwhile, Armin Kunz reviews the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s groundbreaking exhibition of chiaroscuro woodcuts. Serendipitously, the winner of this iteration of the Prix de Print, selected by Lisa Bulawsky of Island Press, is Bob Schneider, who works across domains as an artist, musician and songwriter. 

Together, all these works and words affirm the observation made by poet Charles Simic in his 2003 essay “The Life of Images”: “The attentive eye makes the world mysterious.”

This issue came to fruition through the perseverance of Catherine Bindman, and the generous sharing of contacts and expertise by Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society, New York; Brett Fletcher Lauer, Deputy Director of the Poetry Society; Faith Childs of Faith Childs Literary Agency, New York; Sergio Bess and Major Jackson. Thank you all.