PRINT November 1984

Archie’s Parlor

Archie’s Parlor

The park at Versailles has a little connection to God.

(pick up: For I made it quite plain) For I made it quite
about what and why I was calling.

A landscape on the wall
is a different way of thinking.

That’s where our story begins: a colloquy
among figures captivated by blue, punctuated
by a sequence of touches like lipstick,

like nail polish. They’re what you see
with a sidelong glance, catching the light
that obscures all the rest.

The day
is a zero-sum game. It has
only twenty-four hours and
is extremely unlikely
to change overnight. The sun,

moon and stars
make an expensive
habit, a poetry
of least resistance.
But a wall is a garden.

if they’re both made of paper.
A spiky aura warns
of dangers you wouldn’t think to notice.

Here’s where I stop for breath.

Isn’t it
romantic?—to calculate the exact
angle of sunrise when miracles were fewer but far
more reliable than memory, made possible
by a hazy pantomime
of cloud-shapes. Afterwards
tea is served.

“I started getting passionate
letters from both of them. One sadder,
one wiser, each one on the far side
of the street. My position in all this
is clear: holding onto the handrail
with a dizzy look on my face.”

Dear Awkward,

What you think won’t happen
won’t. I appeal to your
proprioception—as one who asks,
Is this where it hurts?

Here’s where our story
begins. After a very exciting day
the boy came home, took out a jigsaw puzzle and
played quietly until bedtime.

Barry Schwabsky

I STARTED LOOKING AT ART when I was in high school and went on field trips to the Museum of Modern Art. By then I was already reading poetry. Because of my experience at the museum, the first art I was interested in was abstract. In fact, it wasn’t until I took an introductory art history course in college that I could really even begin to look at art that was in any way representational.

After college I went to graduate school to continue studying English literature. While I was there I became friends with a number of art-history majors and we used to talk about what they were doing or shows we had seen. And that was when I began thinking seriously about writing art criticism. Certainly, I was serious about writing poetry. Given that I was already a writer, it seemed a very easy step to go from talking about art to writing about it.

Then I went to Italy and everything changed. I began studying art on my own, I traveled around, seeing as much as I could. Although my main interest was the medieval period, I looked at everything. I saw lots of Modern Italian art. And there were the great monuments of the Renaissance. Piero della Francesca. Giotto, obviously. The Scuola di San Marco. These experiences were revelatory. They made me think about the nature of art, about what was possible. Shortly after returning from Italy I began writing about art.

Thinking and writing about art has enabled me to keep the materiality of words in mind. It’s much more difficult to think about words as a manipulable material than it is to think about paint in that way. Paint is something you can hold, feel, and push around. Another parallel is the way time enters into the reading of a poem or a painting. Just as a painting appears to be seen all at once, yet is understood gradually, a poem appears to move in a straight line, yet needs to be read backwards and forwards. In both cases an apparent unity dissolves itself.

There are multiple art worlds and multiple poetry worlds which overlap and have certain continuities with each other. But as a writer I’d just as soon remain as much apart from the poetry world as possible. And I don’t mind the small extent to which I have to insert myself in the art world. Since I’m already dubious about the poetry world, if I were an artist. I would be dubious about that world.

In literature, I feel that the ’80s parallel the early ’50s, when academics notions of poetry were dominant. The academics were in control of the institutions of dissemination, such as colleges and magazines. Yet. at the same time, there also existed “The Other Tradition,” to use the title of one of John Ashbery’s poems. Right now, as in the ’50s, the art world is more open to experimentation and innovation. It’s what I think O’Hara, Ashbery, Guest, Creeley, and others saw in the art world of the ’50s.

I have a sense that poets have always looked to painters for certain kinds of inspiration. There’s a little passage from a poem by Yeats, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” which goes like this:

We dreamed that a great painter had been born
To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn,
To that stern colour and that delicate line
That are our secret discipline
Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.

Even though the “we” is not necessarily just a group of poets, I think it means that, too. I think the painter’s art is the poet’s “secret discipline.” In part it goes back to the materiality of words I mentioned. O’Hara once gave a lecture in which he talked about the design of a poem. He felt that form was the interior dimension while design was the exterior dimension of the poem’s structure. Poets who are not sympathetic to the visual arts neglect design, or are less conscious of it.

Barry Schwabsky, interviewed by John Yau.