Ut Pictura Poesis, Paris-New York: Trans-Atlantic Exchanges between Poets and Painters, 1850 to the Present
Ut Pictura Poesis, “As is painting, so is poetry” wrote the Roman poet Horace, a rather prophetic statement given the number of poets that have ever since been fascinated with, even sought employment in, the visual art world—perhaps more and more so since paintings have become surrounded by many over types of images: photographs, films, prints, and the digital files that make so immediately accessible paintings that one used to have travel the world to see.
In this course we’ll examine the poetic tradition often called ekphrasis (poetry about painting, loosely translated) as it informs the cultural exchanges between poets writing in America and Paris. Some of our focus will fall on the perceived shift (in the mid-twentieth century) of the center the international art-world from Paris to New York; but we’ll also think about the role these great metropolises play in modern poetry. A guiding question will be how we can contrast and compare this common interest in painting across American and French poetry. What does this common passion tell as about the more or less reciprocal influences French and American poets have on one another? Or the differing ideas and programs these poets have about what poetry is, what meaningful differences they find between verse and prose, form and content, image and sound?
Reading excerpts along the way from the classic formulations of the relationship between poetry and painting by Horace and Lessing, we’ll begin with the poetry and art criticism of Charles Baudelaire and discuss his relationship to the Realist and Impressionist movements in 19th century French painting. After visiting the turn of the century poets Mallarmé and Paul Valéry, we’ll spend some time looking at the early 20th century art movements of Cubism and Dada through the lens of poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and Pierre Reverdy, as well though the works of two American poets, Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy, living in Paris at the same time. Over the second part of the semester, we’ll look closely the American Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1940s and 50s and read the New York poets (and art critics) John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Barbara Guest, considering the marked influence of French poetry on their own writing about painting. Time permitting, we’ll likely also look at work by Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, Aimé Césaire, the Surrealist movement in poetry and painting, Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Anne Portugal, Yves Bonnefoy, and André du Bouchet.
As this course fulfills the University’s R1A requirement, our focus will be less on secondary sources and independent research, than it will be on sharpening our interpretive and analytical skills as we read poetry and art criticism by poets. Not assuming any prior familiarity with modern poetry, we’ll employ poet’s attempts to understand or interpret works of art as a guide to approaching the seeming difficulty or impenetrability much ‘modern’ poetry exhibits.
All reading and discussion will be done in English, with many texts translated from French. Students will be expected to produce a number of short papers (3 pages in length) in response to set questions and exercises, as well as two drafts of a longer final paper on a topic students will begin to develop after Spring break. Readings will made available in a course reader that students will be required to procure.
French R1A fulfills the first half of the Reading and Composition Requirement in the College of Letters and Science. Class conducted in ENGLISH.