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This review is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

TWO ARTS A Conversation Piece. Poetry and Art, edited by Adrian Rice and Angela Reid, (The National Galleries of Northern Ireland in association with Abbey Press) £14.99

In painting, a conversation piece is a group portrait, either a slice of life genre piece or a formal portrait commemorating a group of individuals, especially a family or professional associates. The `conversation' is the relationship between and among the people in the painting so that the artwork becomes a record of both the likenesses and the social world of the sitters. In A Conversation Piece, the Ulster Museum invited fifty poets, mostly Irish and Irish-American, to select a picture from their collection and write a poem about it. The conversation, then, is really the interrogation of the painting by the poet. However, taken in sum the poems - published with well-produced colour plates of their paintings - do create a conversation piece about the relationship between painting and poetry. The editors have chosen as their epigram Horace's `In poetry, as in painting', suggesting that the two forms are analogous. This formulation, however, elides important distinctions and differences between the two arts, particularly the problem of reconciling verbal and visual media - and a visual media, which has trended toward an extremely high level of abstraction over the last century.

What is striking about A Conversation Piece is how conservative most of the poets' choices are; both in the art they have selected and in how they convey the meaning of the painting in poetic forms. Without knowledge of all the paintings in the Ulster Museum, it is not known whether the poets' choices were forced by ...


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