PRINT November 1984

Poets and Art

Charles Baudelaire championed Delacroix. Mallarmé took naps on Degas’ couch. Apollinaire and Picasso wandered through the streets of Paris together. Blaise Cendrars went to the top of the Eiffel Tower with Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Whenever he was in New York, William Carlos Williams dropped in on Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. Marianne Moore was friends with Paul Rosenfield. When the Surrealists (Apollinaire coined the word) came to New York to escape the War, they found a home away from home in magazines such as VVV and View, which published new art and literature. Frank O’Hara took cabs to openings. He was always in a hurry and always had time. Many poets have been passionate about art; some have become art critics. Baudelaire had one view of this: “All great poets naturally and fatally become critics. I pity those poets who are guided by instinct alone: I regard them as incomplete.”

The poet Parker Tyler was one of the first to write intelligent, provocative essays on Hollywood movies, while Edwin Denby is the greatest ballet critic of the 20th century. Today, Magic and Myth of the Movies (1970) and Looking at the Dance (1968) are class ics in their field. While he was a student at Black Mountain College, Jonathan Williams started Jargon Society. One of its first publications was a broadside of a poem by Joel Oppenheimer and a drawing by Robert Rauschenberg. For more than thirty years Williams has published books by and about writers, artists, and photographers, and written passionate essays championing the little known. Under the direction of Robert Creeley, the Black Mountain Review emerged as one of the liveliest, most controversial “little” magazines of the ’50s. Creeley has written about and collaborated with artists for more than two decades. Barbara Guest and James Schuyler joined the staff of Art News in the ’50s. Unburdened by the narrowness implicit in formalist criticism, both wrote sensitive, perceptive essays dealing with a wide range of art. In the ’60s poets such as Carter Ratcliff and Peter Schjeldahl emerged as critics in their own right. Their writing continues to play a role in the way we look at art now. And then there is the singular presence of Rene Ricard. These poets form part of a massive, shifting landscape. Gerrit Henry, Marjorie Welish, Ted Greenwald, Kenward Elmslie, Charles North, Douglas Crase, Tony Towle, William Corbett, Clark Coolidge, Ann Lauterbach, Geoffrey Young, Thomas Meyer, Ron Padgett, John Hollander, Mark Strand, Peter Frank, Bernadette Mayer, Paul Auster, David Shapiro, Michael Davidson, Alice Notley, Clayton Eshleman, Reagan Upshaw, Thomas McEvilley, and Kenneth Koch are just some of the other poets who have written about or collaborated with artists.

Shelley said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The relationship between poets and art is complex. Hardly any poets can survive on the money they make from poetry, while some artists can achieve enough success to live comfortably on the money they make from doing what they want. Working as an art critic, the poet can in some way affect the artist’s career, This writing, however, most likely does not affect their own career in poetry. The more art criticism poets write, the less time they have for their own work. Obviously, the symbios is between poets and artists goes beyond a material one. The poet who becomes an art critic in order to make money is as deluded as the person who carries their front door on their back so no one can break into their house. Knowing most poets aren’t deluded, I wondered why so many became involved with art criticism. Certainly, it was for neither the financial reward nor the effect it would have on their careers as poets. If it wasn’t a matter of convenience, then was the link between poets and artists one of sensibility? Are we all Don Quixotes in the end?

John Yau is a poet and critic who writes frequently for Artforum. The four poets interviewed here all live in New York; their most recent books are: John Ashbery, A Wave (Viking, 1984); Tony Towle, New & Selected Poems (Kulchur Foundation 1983); Ann Lauterbach, Sacred Weather (Grenfell Press,1984); Barry Schwabsky, The New Lessons (Tamarisk, 1979).