I remember the first time I was introduced to a poem that was inspired by a famous painting. The poem was Nude Descending a Staircase. It was written by X. J. Kennedy about Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. I believe Kennedy wrote the poem about Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), which was painted in 1912. That painting is included in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You can view the painting by clicking here. Click here if you'd like to view Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1), which was painted by Duchamp in 1911.
I love the way Kennedy describes the descending nude in his poem. In the last stanza, he calls the nude a “one-woman waterfall.” I feel as if his words flow like water as they slip so easily from my tongue when I read the poem. I like the way he uses words, his phrasing: a snowing flesh, sifts in sunlight, a constant thresh of thigh on thigh, parts to let her parts go by. Here are the first two stanzas of Kennedy’s poem:
Nude Descending a Staircase
by X. J. Kennedy
Toe after toe, a snowing flesh,
a gold of lemon, root and rind,
she sifts in sunlight down the stairs
with nothing on. Nor on her mind.
We spy beneath the banister
a constant thresh of thigh on thigh;
her lips imprint the swinging air
that parts to let her parts go by.
You can read the rest of Kennedy’s poem here at the website of the Poetry Foundation.
Click here to read more about Kennedy, a recipient of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. (Five of Kennedy's poems are posted on this page.)
I don’t know why Kennedy's poem came to mind the other day. It just did—and as I began writing up this post, it brought to mind an excellent anthology that pairs new poems with works of American art. The anthology, Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art is the recipient of an ALA Michael Printz Honor Award. It was edited by Jan Greenberg and was published by Harry N. Abrams in 2001. The poems were specially commissioned for this anthology—and it is one outstanding book!
Heart to Heart is divided into four sections: Stories, Voices, Impressions, and Expressions. It includes works of art by Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Grandma Moses, Andy Warhol, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock--and poems by Ron Koertge, J. Patrick Lewis, Janet S. Wong, Jane Yolen, Naomi Shihab Nye, and X. J. Kennedy. The back matter of the book contains biographical notes about the artists and the poets.
One of the works of art in the Voices section is Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach. In Ringgold’s acrylic painting, we see a city family enjoying life on the roof of their building one warm evening. The poem that accompanies the painting was written by Angela Johnson and is entitled From Above. Here is how Johnson’s poem begins:
When it is warm time
in the evening
and my people are laughing
it almost feels like
I can fly…
Imagine sharing Johnson’s poem with children after reading them Tar Beach. What an inspiration her poem could be for students to select their favorite picture book covers or illustrations and to write poems inspired by them after they had read the books.
Older kids could also be inspired to write poetry about famous works of art. I think most of us are familiar with Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the painting of people sitting at a diner counter late at night as yellow light glows inside on the diner walls and people’s faces and flows out onto the sidewalk outside.
Hopper’s Nighthawks inspired Donald Finkel’s poem More Light. It begins like this:
Or is it the light that exists for him as he paints?
Not that old buttery-yellow light-bulb light,
but this miraculous light the makers call “fluorescent,”
this clear-as-day light that bathes the diner,
this harbor in a sea of darkness. How it pours
through the plate-glass window, rinsing the red brick
wall across the street, spilling through the window
of somebody fast asleep! It’s seeping into her dream.
If you love poetry…if you love art…if you love to read poems inspired by famous works of art, you must get yourself a copy of Heart to Heart edited by Jan Greenberg!
Here's a Website about Poetry and Art That’s Too Good to Miss!
Check out The Poet Speaks of Art by Harry Rusche of the English Department, Emory University. It’s a project that was designed for students in an Introduction to Poetry Course.
This week's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Mentor Texts, Read Alouds & More.