Sunday, May 11, 2014

Kay Ryan Gathers Her Mother's Lilacs

Searching for poems about Mary Cassatt's work - what else would we publish on Mother's Day? - we found this lovely hommage by the former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan to Cassatt's "Lilacs in a Window." It's followed by Ryan's thoughts on ekphrastic poetry. More about Kay Ryan here.

by Mary Cassatt

Do colors

call to one another—
lilac in a window

call green; green

beg relief from


thing the other’s

name? No lilac

without end?


my mother’s choice,

one bush

by the desert house

against sand and

bitter wind

called to her

green, green

without end.

Ekphrastic poems. Norris Palmstreick asks if I write them. Well, now that I have looked up the word and determined that an ekphrastic poem is one that describes another work of art, usually a painting but also possibly sculpture or music, I am prepared to say that I have done so, after a fashion, but not recently.

I should start by admitting that I have a certain prejudice. I am inclined to see poems-about-paintings as easy poems, or exercises, or trainer poems. The writer is playing tennis against a nice, solid backboard. The artwork is already there; all the poet has to do is dance around in front of something both fixed and culturally valuable. One feels a sense of pre-approval if one writes about Great Art.

But please, I don’t want anybody throwing Rilke’s torso in my face. Of course there is no “kind” of poetry that one can really say is “easy” or any such thing. We all just have approaches that rub us mostly the wrong way.

Twenty years ago, yes; I demonstrated definite ekphrastic tendencies: poems treating of Hopper, Van Gough, Matisse, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Chagall, even Giotto and El Greco. And why wouldn’t poets write about artists of all kinds? One is alone and cherishes the struggles (ending in triumph, of course) of others who were alone. Also, there is the pleasure of jobbing out one’s aesthetic musings.

Maybe I’m wrong to think I ever really wrote ekphrastic poems. I have always found “material” (such as the content of a picture, or a story from my life or anyone else’s) very hot to stand on; I’ve had to jump off pretty fast. 

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