Writing About Art
I have been struggling to find good content for my poetry lately. Sometimes, I re-read my work and I think the ideas are too lofty or too philosophical and just not grounded in either reality or the relevant. To get past that, I thought it might be a good idea to create a project for myself . . . what if I were to write about art?
The strange thing is that I think the universe is now conspiring to make sure this happens. One more coincidence and I think I might actually get scared. There’s no getting out of it now.
When I decided that there was no better place to start finding images for my poetry than in . . . well, images, I thought I’d better get myself a book of famous paintings. My Dad loves to browse around second-hand stores, so I sent him on a mission. I asked him to see if he could locate a book on Art History. My instructions were vague, but the one specific was to avoid bringing back a book that focused solely on an individual artist. Off he went to Value Village. Sadly, he came back empty-handed.
A week later, I was in the same Value Village looking to see if perhaps my Dad had overlooked the treasure I was seeking. I did in fact find a book that day, but it was not at all what I had expected. It was not a book about Art History, including the works of many masters, as I had described to my Dad. It was exactly what I had asked him not to pick up – a book concerning an individual artist. Rembrandt to be exact.
I know nothing about Art History and I know nothing about Rembrandt, but I am always up for a challenge – and I love research, so I decided that my project be based around the paintings of Rembrandt.
Ekphrasis and The Stroll of Poets
Writing poetry about art is called “ekphrasis.” I only (re-)discovered that when I started exploring some ideas for this project. It is an interesting word of Greek origin (meaning “description,” “to point out” or “explain”), but as interesting as it might be, it is not a common word. That is why I found it so unusual when, last night, I made a new friend at a poetry reading (The Stroll of Poets Haven Reading Series, Edmonton, who told me that she wrote quite a lot of ekphrastic poems (and I understood what the heck she was talking about)! It turns out that this very nice lady is an Art Historian. Strange. That might not seem like a huge coincidence . . . but to me, meeting her, and having that conversation, seemed . . . well . . . meaningful.
So during the past week, I spent some time thinking about where to start with this project. I’d have to pick a painting to start with . . . but, how to choose? Maybe I should just go with my gut? I decided to be a little bit more intentional. It crossed my mind that if I were to write a poem about a famous painting, then one day, I might want to go and see the actual painting for myself. So, I consulted my good friend, Mr. Google, to find out where Rembrandt’s works are located. As it turns out, there are not many in Canada (I can’t really say I am surprised), but – as fortune would have it – there are quite a number in my native England. Since I do get back to the UK occasionally, I decided to pick a painting that could be viewed in London, England. I don’t know why I settled on Belshazzar’s Feast. All I know is that it was chosen from a short list of titles without giving the actual images much thought (which does seem to go against the grain a little, but nonetheless felt right).
I have spent the past two days staring at the painting and reading a little bit about it – gearing up, as it were, to plunge in with my first (pre-planned) ekphrastic poem. Tonight, I was going to make a start on the poem, or at least make myself a few more notes on the painting. Instead though, I decided to take a hot bath and read the collection of Al Purdy poems I picked up from the library today (Beyond Remembering).
Now, for the most recent coincidence . . . I am 8 poems into the book when I read the following lines from “At Roblin Lake”):
Next morning I make a shore-capture,
one frog like an emerald breathing,
hold the chill musical anti-body
a moment with breath held,
thinking of spores, spermatozoa, seed,
housed in this cold progenitor,
transmitting to some future species
what the wall said to Belshazzar.
Again, strange. Of all the allusions Purdy could have used, he draws attention to my painting (well, Rembrandt’s, but you know what I mean)!
I can’t help it. I just think it’s meant to be. So . . . I guess I’ve got myself a project!
(I’d love to hear from others about similar coincidences that have led them on to a “meant-to-be project.” Please share your story).