Friday, November 2, 2007

Poetry and Art

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
and warm
beside me,
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.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Elaine, great post. I love Kennedy's poem--it's a real masterpiece, and I haven't seen it in ages. It was a treat to revisit it. And I'm going to have to put that anthology on reserve.

I love poems in response to images. It's how I'm writing my Capstone poetry books and also the basis of the 15 Words or Less poetry game we do every Thursday/Friday. Images really touch off words for me.

And, on that topic, I just yesterday got Spooky ABC from the library. It is fabulous! One of my favorite collections ever, I think. And the back matter explains how Eve Merriam wrote the poems in response to Lane Smith's art. Wonderful! Thank you so much for posting about this book. This is one I'm going to have to buy.
(I'm looking at the 2002 edition, with the original text and art, but redesigned. And it shows some of Lane's art that didn't get used because Merriam wrote poems about a different topic: V was vampire, originally, for instance, but she wrote a Viper poem and he drew that instead.)

Elaine Magliaro said...


There was an earlier edition of "Spooky ABC." It was "Halloween ABC" that was also illustrated by Smith and published in 1987. I think I'll see if I can get a copy of the newer version. I didn't know the 2002 book included art that wasn't in the original edition.

I really like that Kennedy poem, too. You're going to love "Heart to Heart."

Becky said...

Tons of good stuff today (as usual!), Elaine -- thanks. I especially like the Poetry Speaks of Art line -- thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I'll have to look for Heart to Heart as well. I love ekphrastic poetry - I wrote a piece last year after seeing a collection of artist's books at a museum in Washington, DC. It was challenging and interesting and fun.

Vivian Mahoney said...

Wow. You really know how to pack in some great poems. The Heart to Heart anthology sounds wonderful. I'll have to look for this one.

tanita✿davis said...

The Kennedy poem -- boy, the imagery is really great. The Heart to Heart collection sounds fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Love that Kennedy poem. Thanks for that, and now I wanna get my hands on the Heart to Heart collection, too.

Laura, I have Spooky ABC from the library right now, too. First time I've seen it. So fabulous!

Sara said...

Oh, I have Heart to Heart! It's on my coffee table, where anyone who comes over can play with it.

I was privileged to be part of a show for several years where each writer responded to a work of art. The art and poems were all hung together in a gallery later. My friends even gave me the painting one year that my poem was written for. Maybe I'll look for that one for next week.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I really like the Poetry Speaks of Art site, too. It's interesting what one finds when "googling" a particular topic or works of art and literature.

Kelly, Vivian, Tadmack, Jules--

I think you'll all love "Heart to Heart." It's a fantastic anthology for kids and adults.


That sounds like a great show! I hope you will post a blog about it for Poetry Friday.