Samuel Taylor Coleridge once mused that poetry is no more or less than “the best words in the best order.” And there may be something to that as the written verse has always been a means to express a thing that you could feel but not explain.
Love poems, for example, are ever-popular for their ability to put the raw emotionality of love into words.
Poems about art, though somewhat less popular than love poems, fill the same role. Critics can often only muster a description of a work, its technical prowess, and the like. Rarely can they describe the complex emotions the piece imparts.
Hence the cliche phrase, “they should have sent a poet.”
It’s fitting then that art and poetry go hand-in-hand. And because it is fitting, we’ll take a look at some times when masters of the visual medium crossed paths with masters of the written word.
Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits, Elizabeth Jennings (1975)
Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, or just Rembrandt to his friends, is one of the most celebrated of the Dutch masters. As such, he’s been the study of intense scholarship, criticism, and one dubious fiction film starring Martin Freeman.
With a long career of works to select from, it’s interesting that Elizabeth Jennings chose to respond to a selection of self-portraits from the end of his life.
They’re not especially well-remember compared to many of the master’s other works. But Jennings seems to see in them a raw and revealing self-recognition that sparks admiration.
They’re not especially flattering paintings, after all. If Instagram has existed in his day, they’re the sort of selfies you’d want to cover up with as many filters as possible.
But that seems to be the point. “Your brush’s care / Runs with self-knowledge,” Jennings writes.
To her mind, the acceptance of the passage of time is comforting, helping to dispel the fear of advancing age and mortality.
Musée des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden
This poem draws inspiration from not one, but several works all by the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, all of which just happened to share a museum space.
The best example, though, is its interpretation of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. As the work’s title implies, it depicts Icarus’ fatal fall from the sky, though with a novel twist. Rather than making its apparent subtext the focus, it shows his fall merely as a minor event in an already busy scene.
It suggests that, while Icarus’ fall was the most significant event to happen to him, he’s just a minor player in the grand scene. The greater universe is at most curious about him, but broadly indifferent.
It’s that sentiment that most interests Auden remarking in the opening lines “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood its human position.”
Nude Descending a Staircase, X. J. Kennedy (1961)
Marcel Duchamp was not well-respected in his own time, and he remains a controversial figure in art scholarship to this day. He was, after all, the radical who hung a bicycle wheel in a gallery and called it art, so his notoriety doesn’t come from anything.
Which makes his Nude Descending a Staircase an interesting subject. To look at the work and find anything resembling a human form, or a staircase for that matter, would strain many imaginations.
But Kennedy captures some measure of what makes the work arresting, its depiction of a thoughtless, mechanized human figure rendered in golden geometry.
The Disquieting Muses, Sylvia Plath (1957)
Sylvia Plath needs no introduction. Her intense works of verse established her as one of the preeminent poets of the 20th century, if not of all time. And her signature style is very much on display in her interpretation of de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses.
It’s a match well-made, as the uncanny mood of de Chirico’s work is a perfect fit for Plath’s intensity. The three faceless muses of the painting evoke the Three Fates of classical mythology and cut ominous figures.
Plath, for her part, imagines these sinister figures as various persons from her own troubled youth. The result is like a chilling diary entry set to verse.
Mourning Picture, Adrienne Rich (1965)
If you’ve never heard of Edwin Ramanzo Elmer, don’t worry. You could probably get a degree in art history without his name ever coming in class.
But despite not being remembered as one of the greats, one of his works appears to have had a marked impact on Adrienne Rich.
Mourning Picture is not the name Elmer himself applied to the work. That title would be given it decades later. The painting is a sort of memorial to Elmer’s daughter Effie, who sadly passed away from acute appendicitis at the age of nine.
The work at first appears like a pleasant pastoral scene, with Effie posed with her pet lamb and kitten outside her home as her parents look on. The crucial detail is the parents themselves, dressed in mourning clothes ad resigned to only look on, never again to interact.
Rich seemed enthralled by the work, composing the work from the perspective of the late Effie looking back upon her parents from wherever she now stands.
The Starry Night, Anne Sexton (1961)
To end our list we turn to one of the most beloved works of art ever produced.
Van Gogh’s The Starry Night conjures an image of the twilight heavens, at once serene and alive in ecstatic motion. It’s a work that has inspired imitators, songs, and even what claims to be the first “fully-painted” feature film.
So of course, poetry is among the many mediums it has inspired.
Anne Sexton’s poem, likewise called The Starry Night, reveals her as a kindred spirit to Van Gogh. The first line is not about the living cosmos, but of the empty town that lies below. It’s a curious and melancholic subject and a reflection of Sexton’s own thoughts. Like Van Gogh before her, she would tragically take her own life some years later.
That being the case, her interpretation reads as a longing for the peace of oblivion. Not a cry of pain, but an expression of desire for something beyond what life seemed able to give her.
Poems About Art Put Words to the Ineffable
Poetry has imbued art with inspiration for as long as the two creative mediums have existed. Just look to the countless interpretations of the ancient Greek classics and myths, or to depictions of The Divine Comedy.
So it’s only appropriate that art should return the favor.
There are countless more poems about art for you to discover, both from the pens of legends and from poets overlooked. And who knows? It could be that your next museum day will inspire you to craft a modern classic.
You may have noticed though that many of these poems veer into the melancholy. It’s to be expected when art can inspire such complicated feelings. As such, for a good pairing with these pieces, check out our list of the best poems about heartache.