Saturday, February 6, 2010

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: Thinking about Art and Poetry


"The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie , held aloft in its high silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time."

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, 2001

I've been re-reading this wonderful book tonight and thinking about Doty's ideas on art and poetry. Towards the end of the book, he claims that still life and poetry do the same thing, the "inner life of the dead held in suspension" as if to work against mortality. Although this might very well be Doty's poetic project, it seems problematic to claim this across the poetic landscape. Perhaps this suspension happens after the poet is gone -- and then this fighting against forgetting could be true of any art form - not just still life and poetry? Why not sculpture? Movies? 

But I do like this whole sense of imperfection being the true perfection -- that we are meant to be half-baked, half-tasted, half gone in at least some respect. I'm preparing a section of the ekphrasis workshop on contemporary poets / poems. I've looked at poets who write poems inspired directly from music, photographs, and movies. If you have a favorite ekphrastic poem, please share! -- We already have Rilke, Auden, and Mueller all set to go ...

I am thinking of using poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Doty, Natasha Tretheway, and Yusef Komunyakaa in my part of the presentation. Suggestions?


  1. Not really ekphrasis, but it occurs to me that Stein's portraits (particularly of artists) would provide an interesting counterpoint. Kind of a direct refutation of the idea of poetry as still life-- at least if you accept the difference between portrait painting and still life from which I think Stein was working.

  2. imperfection tells me that something has been created by a real live human being. perfection screams "i am a product." while i'm interested in having products in my life---shampoo, ketchup, bath towels---i'm not interested if the art that i'm experiencing is a product. let's put it this way, i probably don't want to wash my hair with a poem. (or do i?)

  3. Beloved Snail, Gertrude Stein's portraits are a fascinating idea. It's also interesting to me how many poets were also to a lesser degree painters -- Bishop, Walcott, and Lorca come immediately to mind.

  4. Are you looking for poems based on poems or only on paintings? Diane Thiel's "Momento Mori in Middle School" (from Dante's Inferno, of course)is always a delight to teach and read.