Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from Around the World
Edited by Jan Greenberg
Abrams Books for Young Readers
Ages 10 and up
June 1, 2008
It’s poetry Friday, poppins. A Wrung Sponge has the round-up. Word to your esteemed mother.
Ekphrasis. The word doesn’t fall as trippingly off the tongue as you might wish, eh? Ekphrasis has actually become my favorite new vocabulary word of the day. In ekphrastic poetry a poet looks at a piece of art and writes a poem inspired by the experience. In college I did a Senior photography project based on the idea of how titles affected your perception of a work of art, and I had different poets write poems inspired by what they saw in the images. Never on earth would I have dreamed that there was a term out there for this idea, nor that it should have such a long and venerable history. Unlike me, editor Jan Greenberg is well and truly familiar with ekphrasis and she makes it useful. Her book Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art paired poets with American works, and displayed the poems they wrote as a result. It was a good idea, if a bit limited from a national perspective. Greenberg has just rectified that situation though with Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from Around the World. Now we’ve Germans defining Norwegian paintings, Vietnamese paints, and cool Turkish words. Greenberg has spanned the globe to bring you works and words from Bhutan, Belgium, Guyana, and Japan. The mix of art and text may work to inspire and aid teachers of poetry and their inspiration-bereft student population. Failing that, it’s a cool idea in a pretty nice package.
The book is split into four parts; Stories, Voices, Expressions, and Impressions. These define how each poet has chosen to interpret the work before them. Stories are tales inspired by the work before you. For example, Pat Mora reminisces about past parties where “I dance and run through the music”, as inspired by a group of painted wooden and ceramic figurines from Mexico. In poems in the Voices section you hear the subjects of the artworks telling their own stories. Expressions is a little more difficult and involves the poet becoming, “interested in the transaction that takes place between the viewer and the art object.” Finally, the Impressions poems are concerned with the presentation of the art itself. Many of these works are translated, sometimes by a translator, sometimes by the poets themselves. Backmatter includes Biographies of the Poets and Translators, Biographies of the Artists, an Index, and a map of the world showing where each poet, translator, and artist lives or lived.
The question of translation is mentioned in the Introduction and given a lot of thought, for which I was glad. Not only do translators get their own biographies at the end of the book, but Greenberg makes a case right from the start regarding their importance. “I would say that, although a translation can never be identical to the original text, at the same time a translated poem from another culture gains a new life, a new sound, a new way of being understood, and a new audience.” Sound about right to me.
Once in a while, the artists that have created some of these pieces have gone on to also write their own interpretive poems. I would have liked a little more notice paid to this form of poetry, which otherwise goes unremarked in the book. To my mind such poems should constitute their own separate section. There are four altogether, which would suggest a dedication to both art forms. In another quibble I would also have appreciated knowing which poets Greenberg commissioned to write poems and which poets came up with poems on their own, unasked. Finally, the map at the back of the book that shows the countries where each poet, translator and artists lived is nice, but the names don’t appear on the map. As a result, the lack of specification makes it seem as if there were people in this book populating Antarctica or the Indian Ocean. A look at the biographies shows this not to be the case, but it’s still a touch unclear.
You might wonder how kid-friendly the book is. Well, for the most part the poems are mature without necessarily being too adult. They’re poems that teens could get something out of, I think. There are a couple exceptions here and there, though. I think younger children would get a kick out of Luis Martinez de Merlo’s poem “Portrait of Prince Balthasar Carlos de Caza” (based on the Diego Velazquez painting of the same name) where a seriously bored prince imagines the darkest possible dungeon he will throw Velazquez into when he is king someday. Or perhaps Grace Nichols’ “Turner to His Critic” based on a story told about his painting “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” and a critic’s response to it. Humor is definitely lacking in this collection, but at least these two poems hint a little at its existence beneath an artist’s (or subject’s) contempt.
Of course the real question here is how kids can use this title. Is this just some pretty coffee table book for the 8-15 year-old set, or does it actually have a practical purpose above and beyond looking nice? I think so. Both art teachers and teachers of poetry might be able to use this book in a classroom setting. Imagine a professor showing slides of some of this art and then reading the accompanying poem aloud. I can see Wafaa S. Jdeed’s “Forest” shot large on a white wall as the words “Drenched with waiting. He always arrives with winter,” are read to a class. Or if it’s a little more excitement you crave, there’s always Itzhak Danziger’s “Nimrod” with the Roy “Chicky” Arad poem “The Corpse” to accompany it. “It is a rainy day. Nevertheless, a serpent crawls on its belly towards the carcass dome. Out of his tongue rises a vapor of yellow and venom.” Afterwards kids would write their own poems for paintings and works of art. Some famous. Some less so. It’s a creative writing project with art on the side. What’s not to like? What’s not to be inspired by?
At the end of her Introduction Greenberg quotes translator Lawrence Venute when she writes, “I can’t think of anything more creative than extending the life of a foreign poem.” Greenberg has done just that, by simultaneously extending the life of various artworks as well. If kids love the poems that’s all well and good, but if they dislike them it makes for a strong learning opportunity. Interpretation of artwork is open to all. Get those kids writing their own poems by using their displeasure as a starting point. Side by Side continues a very cool idea for a book in a format that is simultaneously accessible and artistic. It’s not for everyone, but it certainly has its uses. A noteworthy follow-up to an original concept.
On shelves June 1st.
Notes on the Cover: I suppose a Picasso painting is a pretty safe choice. He’s well-known enough to garner some interest, but the picture isn’t so familiar (as with Munch’s “The Scream”) that the book gets considered rote. It wouldn’t have been my choice, though. I mean if you want to appeal to kids, a book of poetry is going to be a rough sell right from the start. That’s why I’d suggest considering Rossetti’s weirdo “How They Met Themselves”, which is also featured in the book. In that painting a couple meets its doppelganger in a wood and one of the ladies falls into an unhealthy swoon as a result. It’s bizarre. It has hints of the supernatural (always a lovely sell). And while it hasn’t the cultural cache of Picasso, at the same time it’s going to intrigue someone somewhere. My two cents.