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This article is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.

A Poet in an Art Gallery: John Ashbery as an Art Critic Gerard Woodward

The image in poetry has an affliction that the image in painting can free itself from, namely, that it signifies. An artist's first point of reference is made simply by looking. By the time the poet gets pen to paper he has looked and processed that experience through a matrix of associations until the point is not how the thing looks but what it represents. One cannot discuss icecream in Stevens's poetry without discussing childhood, whereas Cézanne's apples might invite discussion only on the redness of apples. Only a poet would bring the fall into the discussion.

The distinction lies in poetry's dependence on metaphor. In a poem one can only describe redness by comparison, but in painting, redness is described by the application of an equivalent red pigment. The metaphor becomes a material thing, the redness of the paint, and so is able to free itself from the metaphorical network in which all linguistic communication is enmeshed, and which may transport a poem about apples out of the realm of fruit altogether.

There are few artists who successfully straddle this cognitive divide. William Blake is the most notable exception, although there are a surprisingly large number of poets who dabble in painting, and painters who dabble in poetry. But the rarity of an artist who achieves distinction in both fields must surely point to what for a long time I have been reluctant to accept, that poetry and painting are fundamentally different cognitive processes. ...


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