Coimbra Seminar: Writing From Art

John Taggart


“…poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a
compensation for what has been lost.”

—Wallace Stevens, “The Relations between Poetry and Painting”


In 1994 the Anglo-American painter R. B. Kitaj suffered two disasters, unanimously hostile critical reaction to a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery and the death of his wife Sandra. He blamed her death on the critics and returned, after nearly forty years in England, to America, the country of his birth. There he began a series of paintings entitled “Los Angeles.” Not concerned with the city of that name, the paintings are predominated by depictions of the artist and his wife as nude angels. If a personal “project” is to be ascribed to the series, from the artist’s perspective, it would be loss, mourning the loss of his wife and attempting some sort of closeness with her. Viewers of these paintings, however, may ascribe to them something larger: the hope that death does not mean a separation that remains always and forever a separation. While Kitaj is a “contemporary” painter (he died in October of 2007), this hope is both ancient and universal.




The challenge of writing from art is transformation. Put as a question: can a poem begin from a painting and end up as a more or less free standing thing-in-itself? More or less because transformation, like translation, is a matter of degree. To translate means to carry something from one place to another. By definition, any sort of writing about or from visual art is a translation. What was made with pigment on a flat two-dimensional surface has been carried over into the signs (and space) of language. The question remains whether more than this carrying can be done. Whether more than furniture moving (the sofa remains a sofa, only the rooms are different) can be done. Whether the poem as a composed form made up of linguistic signs (words) can be accomplished—an accomplishment of new meaning—even as it originates from a different, visual form (painting).

All art seeks to give meaning to experience by form, the most elementary definition of which is shape. Little or no shape = little or no meaning. The challenge of writing from art is also resisting the temptation to reproduce a painting in the medium of language. This temptation can be innocent enough. You admire da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” What could be more natural than to write a poem that copies the painting “faithfully” as indication of your admiration? After all, don’t painters, especially young painters, spend time at the museums and galleries doing just this? They do, but they don’t present their studies and imitations as their own “creations.” Their studies and imitations are means to the end of their own (and later) creations. A poet may write from color plate reproductions of a painter’s work. The challenge is not to produce a poem that is merely the linguistic reproduction of a reproduction. To do so would amount to producing a new redundancy. To do so would amount to writing a poem on a “paint-by-number” basis.




There are a number of assumptions involved. Among others: that the poet does not misreport the shape(s) defined by lines and colors of a painting, that the poet is nevertheless attempting to achieve a new form/meaning distinct from or exceeding that of the painter. These assumptions may be complicated, but they are not contradictory. While a poem may be only relatively transformative, it is assumed that transformation is superior to translation even if a a poem necessarily begins as translation. The test of the latter is verifiability; the test of the former is newness or difference of meaning. This newness or difference may be measured in terms of referentiality. Newness or difference = less referentiality, less reporting that is only reporting. And, yes, difference can be pushed to “differing,” arguing with a source. It is further assumed that creation of new meaning, no matter how relative its newness may be, is superior to appreciation of the originating source, no matter how cultivated that appreciation may be. Duchamp’s moustache trumps the studious eloquence of Bernard Berenson.




A poem can’t achieve either translation or transformation unless time is invested in the painting. This investment is prior to the poet’s investment in composition, the writing process of the poem. The prior investment involves simply looking at the work and what may be called research. Looking, however, is never simple. An act of attention, it must undergo a discipline of cleansing whereby all those things the observer might like to see or has been told should be seen are dissolved in favor of what is found to be actually there. It is an act which must be repeated (over time). With each repetition comes a reduction of assumption/presumption and an increase in understanding. This development concentrates on elements of form (line, color, texture) and possibilities of meaning suggested by an artist’s handling of those elements. Attention is given focus by questions. (Why those lines, why those colors in those particular combinations? What do they suggest?) In the case of Kitaj, a consciously allusive painter who chose to work in the “aura” of other painters and writers, one also has to ask just where do those lines and colors come from. A questioning, active eye sees more than a passively appreciative eye. Seeing more yields the possibility of greater possibilities of meaning, the meaning that is there—“in” the painting—and the new meaning that may come “in” the poem.




Research always begins in the wrong place, i.e., a source which does not contain information most truly valuable for the poem. As what will prove to be most (or least) valuable can’t be known until one is engaged in composition, research should be as far ranging and inclusive as possible. But you can’t do research and write a poem at the same time. Hence, again, as far ranging and inclusive as possible but prior to writing. With regard to Kitaj, I examined R. B. Kitaj:A Retrospective, ed. Richard Morphet and Kitaj In The Aura Of Cézanne And Other Masters by Anthony Rudolf and Colin Wiggins. Both books contain reproductions plus commentary and interviews with the painter. I also examined Critical Kitaj, a collection of art historical/critical essays edited by James Aulich and John Lynch. Later, I read the painter’s own set of meditations entitled Second Diasporist Manifesto. And, by a happy coincidence, I had read R.W. Franklin’s edition of The Poems Of Emily Dickinson not long before I began thinking about Kitaj’s angel paintings. Research need not be limited to reading. I have benefitted from conversations about Kitaj with my fellow poet Michael Heller, the painter’s friend and commentator Anthony Rudolf, his studio assistant during his last years Tracy Bartley.




Research threatens, by its very nature, to lead away from what is primary. It can increase focus and depth, but it can also lead away. With Kitaj, one can be led to other painters he admired, especially Cézanne, or to writers he admired, especially Kafka, or to ideas which attracted and obsessed him such as the Jewish question. However fascinating these outside or “secondary” sources may be in themselves, the issue remains whether they contribute to an increase of focus and depth in relation to seeing the painting and to the seeing that takes place in composition. How much time is spent with these sources depends upon this issue. Typically, one spends too much time with them only to realize one is gradually seeing at a greater and greater remove and through an ever more dark and complicated glass. With that realization comes the awareness that one must stop and return to where one started, the painting itself. There’s also the realization that there are way too many stacks of way too many books on your desk. Or it’s time to begin writing.

As the poet George Oppen has observed, one must not have a thousand threads in his hands but must see the one thing. In relation to research and writing from art, we might say the poem should present at least one image, hopefully “new,” after having seen and thought about many other things (threads). Having seen and thought about many other things in “the world” and in the world of art helps in the better seeing of one thing, the painting itself and in the making of a new image/poem we hope to write in response to the painting.

On  a practical note: jot down the results of your looking at each “sitting” on 3x5 cards. Later, transfer what seems the best or most interesting of those jottings to a notebook. If some seem much better/much more interesting than others, circle or underline them with bright and different magic markers. This way, whether you like your poem or not, you’ll at least have a notebook that looks like something Blake would have done. Keep your notebook and any reproductions of the painting near at hand but not at the center of your desk. As the poet Louis Zukofsky has observed, to write a poem you have to be well organized. It also means making sure you have some clear space on your desk.




An instance of this issue in practice is music. In an interview with Colin Wiggins, Kitaj mentions how he listened to jazz while painting. This provides a direction/directive to the poet. It is both a way of establishing a sympathy between artist and poet and a way of getting along in the writing process. Jazz is many things. In writing about or from Kitaj, I have listened primarily to Miles Davis and his “Complete Bitches Brew Sessions” 4-cd set. That music—its supercharged, edgy electronic splashiness, about equally frenetic and plangent, is much more than merely “colorful”—struck me as congruent with Kitaj’s “Los Angeles” paintings. There are no direct references to this particular music in my poems. Instead, it functioned as an atmosphere, a kind of incitement or encouragement.

Another instance of this issue in practice is my use of language (sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not) from the poetry of Emily Dickinson. This is based on Kitaj’s statement to Wiggins that she was his favorite poet and that his wife’s copy of Dickinson’s poems was always present in his studio. Passages from Dickinson act as clues to “passages” in Kitaj. So there is a transaction of passages/images: from the painter’s “quotations” of a literary source in his visual work to requotations of that same source in my own non-visual work. This might be called an example of the economy of exchange (and re-exchange). It remains the case that the poet’s aspiration—and the musician’s and the painter’s—is work that in the presentation of a subject is experienced as whole and complete.

This, incidentally, is just what got Kitaj in trouble with the critics. Many of the paintings in his retrospective exhibit were accompanied by the artist’s commentaries about them. The commentaries implied, by their very nature, that the paintings were neither whole nor complete. They also more than implied how the paintings should be read. They imposed guided “narratives” for the paintings. Kitaj may have believed he was doing midrash (Jewish practice of writing commentaries on passages from the Torah) and thereby identifying his art and himself as Jewish, but his critics resented the commentaries as instances of “special pleading” and as obstructions to their own readings. All painters are fussy about the presentation of their work. (Rothko, for example, wanted his pictures placed very close together and in dimmed lighting.) Kitaj’s commentaries, however, were judged to have gone too far.




With these definitions and considerations in mind, let us turn to the first of the angel poems.


Big wings lots of colors


red blue green yellow a pale purple

iris within the colors

raised “fall” of the iris which is saying it with a flower



she angel


splotches/stains on her she angel body

choppy waves around/behind her body terrene and marine angel with

flowered eyes


fruit/grapefruit + pink berry breasts on not-level table dreaming


parts of her dream being split open being bulbs

unrolled neon candlelike red thing two-in-one thing candlelike and the

hectic on her cheek

bird in flight in her dream.


Most of this is reportage. It reports in a direct, even brusque “in your face” fashion on what’s there in the first of Kitaj’s “Los Angeles” paintings with particular attention to the female angel figure. Point: the figure is not a generic greeting card angel but an angel with a distinctly female body. Femininity and feminine sexuality are often “signed” as flowers. The poem, going from color and shape, designates the flower as an iris. Related colors and shapes are to be found in the figure’s wing and eye/eyebrow. (The latter is a sexual sign Kitaj borrows from Matisse.) The shapes directly above her head are difficult to read. They become less so when read in relation to Emily Dickinson:


Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music—
Bulb after Bulb in Silver rolled—
(from poem no. 905, p. 391,The Poems Of Emily Dickinson)


My poem reads her lowered head as dreaming and the shapes above her head as parts of her dream. It is a sexual dream which involves a “neon candle-like red thing” as that which does the splitting. I give such description of the “thing” with regard to its actual appearance in the painting and with a sort of “ghost” reference or quotation from Robert Creeley’s poem “The Warning”: “For love—I would/split open your head and put/a candle in/behind the eyes.” Hence a sexual and a love dream. (This is not an arbitrary association. Creeley and Kitaj were friends and well aware of one another’s work. Creeley appears in two early paintings—“The Ohio Gang” and “A Visit to London”—as well as in many drawings by Kitaj.) A lark is a bird. The blue “swoosh” brush strokes in the painting are read as “bird in flight in her dream.”

The second page or part parallels the first with regard to the male angel figure, reporting its corresponding male sexuality (snake-shaped wing, hammer head, strider leg—the last is a “sign” Kitaj borrows from Cézanne). In the painting this figure is leaning over a table and over the female angel’s dream. His one visible eye is covered or “patched.” My poem reads his posture as a posture of listening. What he’s listening to: “the music” (from Dickinson’s poem) given as the bird’s song. The song is also “their song,” what holds them together even as they are separated, kept apart by the table.


Also big also lots


red blue green no yellow and mottled “with mottles

rare” mottled

with black


shapes one of the shapes of power big snake shape him not slim



he angel with an orange ball-peen

hammer head now there’s some power for you


his strider leg

also splotches/stains but lighter but ochre but kind of pink on his strider

leg under the table


he is leaning over her from the other side of the table he

is leaning over her dream

eye-patched eye he is listening to “the music” he is

listening to bird in flight the song of

that bird.




The third page or part is an extended improvisation. It elaborates upon the “fictional” situation of the male angel’s listening. Like improvisation in jazz, it doesn’t come out of the blue. The male angel is listening to a dream of music conditioned or “colored” by Emily Dickinson’s language. A linkage provided by that language gives us an actual song—Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”—and, by way of a further linkage, the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson’s performance of that song on her “New Moon Daughter” cd. This part makes use of some aspects of her performance (electric bass and pedal steel guitar), and it makes use of some of Carmichael’s language. As music, “Skylark” is organized according to an AABA pattern. Part three follows that pattern in its own way (AA = the first two lines which are laid out on the page as separate single line stanzas; B = the long third stanza; the final A = the closing stanza of two lines which are slightly modified versions of the first two separate/single stanza lines but which are now combined to form one stanza).

It may be asked: what about other larks, the skylarks of Shelley and Ralph Vaughan Williams? Why not make use of these two other and well-known birds? Shelley has no particular connection with Kitaj, and the music of Williams isn’t jazz. Research—and perhaps thought itself—leads to ever widening circles of connection and association. To a  thousand threads and to thousands of threads. A parking garage spider’s web. A poet’s final interest, however, is not a web of endless “free association” but a poem. A poet is only free within the boundaries of a poem. These boundaries are chosen, conscious. They may be “formal” –typically having to do with the length and grouping of lines—or associational (identifications having to do with aspects of the subject; in the case of poems written from art, aspects of the art and artist). The circles of research are useful and necessary. The imposition of boundaries upon those circles is useful and necessary. In summary: the entire process = expansion followed by contraction and to a further expansion of another sort of seeing—vision—which emerges from within the poem. The crucial question is not whether the circles will be unbroken but, precisely, whether they can be consciously broken.

It should be noted how this part of the poem, i.e., the sound of bass notes, attempts to disturb or agitate both the silence of the painting and the page. This, in fact, is a goal of all my poetry. Like this poem, it contains little or no internal punctuation as a means of defeating the silent prose reading eye in the interests of encouraging a slowed down, “outloud” engagement with language. That is, the lack of usual or standard punctuation forces a slower/closer reading and perhaps at least some moving of the lips. A poem may utilize other ways to promote a more active engagement with language. One is direct address to the reader as reader, e.g., “if you like adjectives.” Another is to use words as words, e.g., the characterizations of the music characterized as “adjectives.” Is this a “language” poem? Yes and no: yes, it calls attention to language (as language) and no because it wants to do more than that. If you’re writing a love poem, a mourning poem, a poem on the birth of a child—any poem of any enduring human significance, you’d better be doing more than calling attention to language.

These characterizations also apply to the situation of the two angels, a situation of loss/separation and longing for reunion. While the song and its singer are American, the situation is, of course, not restricted to any conception of national identity. Loss and longing are universally human whatever the individual/national flavor or inflection of their expression. (From a Portuguese perspective, “Skylark” might be considered a fado song sung by Cristina Branco to the accompaniment of Carlos Paredes on a Portuguese guitar.) To cite only one example: the culture of ancient Egypt was based on an attempt to deal with loss (death) and provide measures assuring a safe passage to life in the after-life and to a hoped for reunion with those who were loved. All those dynasties, all those pyramids and other constructions, all those hands and backs given to the building of those pyramids and other constructions—and all based on that attempt.


She angel dreaming


he angel leaning over her dream


lutes being old

Fender electric bass slight

sustain on duuum on single duuum              duuums

cloud phases scanty pedal steel underlinings along the way

bird in flight music

the music and the words to the music

the words are imploring words imploring where my love might be is there

someone waiting where and is

there the words go on they don’t/won’t stop


if you like adjectives it’s “wonderful” and “crazy” and “sad” finally

let’s face it “American”



leaning over her dream.




We locate and give identity and meaning to figures by their positions in a scene which is often the background of landscape. While there are hints of water around the female angel figure, what is striking about Kitaj’s painting is its background of whiteness. I’ve chosen to see this background as a realm or region of snow, a “physical” manifestation not only of the color but also of the condition of anxiety. Even more striking is the single/conjoined arm shared by the two angel figures. Both background and arm derive from Emily Dickinson.


Foot of the Bold did least attempt it—
It is the White Exploit
Once to achieve, annuls the power
Once to communicate—
(from poem no. 938, p. 400,The Poems Of Emily Dickinson)


On that dear Frame the Years had worn
Yet precious as the House
In which We first experienced Light
The Witnessing, to Us—

Precious! It was conceiveless fair
As hands the Grave had grimed
Should softly place within our own,
Denying that they died.
(from poem no. 924, p. 396,The Poems Of Emily Dickinson)


It should be noted that my reading of Kitaj’s whiteness differs from the painter’s own reading of Dickinson. (See In The Aura, p. 26, where he gives “white exploit” as her term for death.) Or I transpose the word “exploit” (meaning a brilliant or daring achievement) to refer not only to a death-threatening and loss-threatening landscape but also to their “one long arm.” For that arm, their shared and conjoined arm, is surely a brilliant and daring enough new sign on the painter’s part for the ancient human hope of union, of reunion. Keeping to a fairly matter of fact report (of the colors on their two-in-one long arm), it places them/their arm against and in contrast with the snow, which is a realm/region of anxiety wherein two travellers may get lost and lose one another. Kierkegaard may be right to consider anxiety as a concept,  but—if you have it or have been “had” by it—the anxiety of separation that remains always and forever separation can also be an actuality that haunts every day of your life. In terms of Jewish history, this would be an anxiety that the diaspora will remain always and forever just that. By this juxtaposition/contrast—an image—the poem attempts to render the hope (and faith) embodied by that sign as an achievement that will stand up to and may transcend death’s “achievement.”


In the realm/region of the

possible of possibility and anxiety because

of possibility



in his he angel hand


realm/region of snow in which huddled cattle freeze in

which two travelers may get lost may

lose one another call and call and call again to one another


hand bones connected to arm bones arm in arm one long all connected arm

bone ochre kind of pink suffused


realm/region of


crackles grainy buzz/fuzz

feedback after there is silence and there is seven times silence


she is dreaming he is leaning/listening she and he who are one arm

are ochre kind of pink exploit in the white exploit of snow.




With thanks to Graça Caphina of Grupo de Estudos Anglo-Americanos, University of Coimbra, for many kindnesses.