Poems on paintings

Poetry written in response to visual artwork – which has become a bit of an industry – can be trite, pointless, derivative & merely descriptive, but at its best, when the art serves as a stimulus rather than “subject-matter”, can be original and extend what a poet finds possible.

The Border Poets / Royal Academy Schools Alumni collaboration A Brush with Words (further details obtainable from Tricia Henry) shows the kind of freshness that can be achieved.

Here is an example of mine, (offered without comment & as an introduction to paintings by Kay Lewis-Bell):

I can

I could write a poem, Kay Lewis-Bell,

about your painting Girl*.

In a funny mood for a week

– rain every day

creates or reflects my mindset –

a refusal to settle

to two things I’ve promised to do.

The worst outcome? To disoblige a friend

or alienate some woman I’ve not met

and don’t warm to.

Still grieving for my long-stolen “everything” scrapbook,

I hanker to be painting like you

but can’t find the wholeheartedness to start,

must write instead.

Below her hair

the space above the neck, the shoulder,

on the left makes the shape of a coat-hook, a rowlock:

on the right a spear-head. A simple vertical stroke

marks the line of her larynx.

The hair’s a carmine crop

matching irises and mouth, lips a curl

like Lady Ottoline’s. Words fail

the character your deep warm body-colour

and eyebrow-squiggles evoke.

*and another starting from your

Woman in a Turquoise Dress:

I just noticed how Woman in a Turquoise Dress

has the ghost of a pair of goggles pushed up

on a white kid aviatrix helmet

straight from Tamara de Lempicka –

more likely a bathing-cap –

with pink broken columns behind.

I mention this because

my daughter’s on an island in Greece;

said she’d send a card.

-Charles Johnson