EXPLORING THE INTERACTION BETWEEN WORD AND IMAGE
The Constructed Space
The Constructed Space: A poetry workshop exploring notions of space in sculpture and poetry in response to the Fitzwilliam Museum Sculpture Promenade and works in the permanent collection, Cambridge, 25th September 2010.
Let’s start with a question: what is the relationship between poetry and sculpture? In searching for an answer you begin to see how intertwined the two practices are. Both poetry and sculpture consider space, one in two dimensions (the blank page), the other in three (the gallery, the room, the landscape). But these dimensions become confused, in that many sculptors start with a blank sheet of paper to make a sketch, a plan for the work to follow; the poet begins and ends with the sheet (first blank, then filled with words) but is always reaching beyond it, to encapsulate the universe.
You could say that a poem is a sculpted text, in the way we see the white space around the lines as well as the lines themselves, so that the pattern of the poem becomes as important as its meaning. Every line break suggests a way of reading, every gap or white space represents a silence, held in the air. A stanza break can suggest the passage of time, just as an angle or facet of a sculpture can capture a gesture, an expression, an idea, and fix it in space.
And there is a constant interplay between writers and sculptors. In contemplating the use of the hole in Barbara Hepworth’s pieces, Jeanette Winterson said: ‘Hepworth’s holes are tunnels or worm-holes making a route through time . . . Time is the hole where we begin and end — the womb, the birth canal, the grave in the ground — and it is the Whole where our lives are played out.’ Rilke was Hepworth’s favourite poet, and Rilke was once an assistant to Rodin, the greatest sculptor of his day. It was Rodin who taught Rilke how to observe, not just with his eyes, but with his senses.
Rodin said: ‘Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which nature herself is animated.’ And from Rodin’s teachings, Rilke wrote the greatest poem ever to address a work of sculpture, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, which ends with the extraordinary statement: ‘You must change your life.’
Thinking of this interplay provides us with another question: what can we, as poets, learn from sculptors? Our workshop began by considering concrete poems by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Mary Ellen Solt, in an effort to locate how shape (and colour and typeface) affects meaning. We each took a blank sheet of A3 and went outside to the Sculpture Promenade: angular, contemporary structures juxtaposed against the museum’s grand classical façade. We each chose a piece on display, but instead of writing a conventional ‘descriptive’ poem in response, the resulting poems took their shapes from the sculptures. So the process was reversed: instead of honing the words on the page through the drafting process until a shape emerged, our words were guided by the shapes of the sculptures. And what we wrote was invested with an energy and drive we would never have achieved if we were simply writing from left to right in a straight horizontal line.
We went on to discuss a far more traditional poetic form, the sonnet; and yes, we began with ‘Archaic Torso’ (which the American poet Mark Doty describes as having ‘the sharpest last-minute turn in the whole of sonnet history’), and how interesting it was that Rilke chose the neat confines of that form to describe something broken and incomplete. We read ‘Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words’ by Edwin Morgan, a poet who worked with both concrete and conventional methods. We also looked at sonnets by John Gibbens and David Miller, which brought the discipline of the sonnet together with a more visual, non-verbal approach. And John Gibbens’s Underscore sonnets, which take an already-existing text and cover or obscure sections of it, so only selected words or phrases are visible, led us on to a discussion of poets who work in open forms, such as Jorie Graham (the daughter of sculpture Beverley Pepper) and Susan Howe (whose poems also employ a diversity of typographic styles).
The group was then let loose in the museum, to locate a piece of sculpture to respond to poetically, the sonnet still fresh in our minds…
After Minoan Head 1972: Barbara Hepworth
See how she sits silent amongst the low murmurs,
how she leans forward, open-mouthed,
still ignored by the crowd. She hangs her robe
in a loose curve over the crook of her arm,
it falls against her side, where it covers thick
scars shaped like forks of lightning.
Her wounds, half made by fingers,
half made by knives, are the same colour
of the steps of a hill that hangs over a city
built of ash and spite. They are silent there too.
She remembers the lines of faces, hundreds, no,
thousands of them, standing with skins mottled
and hanging like rags, while their sunken eyes
watched a sun dying against a cold cold sky.
From a distance there is innocence
soft bronze swathes, a tarnished crown
Mother and Child gaze; their empty eyes are open.
But there is a shadow, a bruise upon her face
and closer she is cracked
her robe axed open above the place
where only God has been.
Still she smiles, a clever child
and crooked in her arm she holds their dusty son
against her flat gold chest –
a shrunken man, head cocked with a sly lover’s smile.
He holds a ball in one hand and in the other
two stumps that might have been fingers
raised in insult or in triumph.
“From a distance the gilt carving of Virgin and Child looked beautiful. As I got closer I realised the carving was quite damaged and that the proportions of the child were not those of baby but a fully grown man whose face was twisted into a sly, malevolent smile.
Using these images the poem questions the nature of the relationship between Virgin and Child, of their relationship with God and of their relationship with us (the Believer or Non-Believer). The poem also reflects my own ambivalence and questioning of the Christian religion.”
The sculptor has made a figure
with not quite a face.
Impressions suggesting eye sockets. A gaze
that cannot be read.
No other features.
I cannot tell
what direction it looks in. Hard light
seeps over the infinite steppe.
like the stab of a fork or an arm
fending out at right angles. Something
that’s ancient. Knotted.
then descends like a curtain. Frozen ground
drags down into mud.
The mind hurls descriptions like stones.
“The figure in this poem is a sculpture by Elizabeth Frink called Warrior 1963. The sculpture is quite rough and out of proportion and also quite small, but it is interesting because it seems to force the onlooker to imagine or interpret what isn’t there. This lack of definition is suggestive and unsettling.”