Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955

Editor: Jan Greenberg

First published: 2001

Type of work: Poetry

The Poems

In line with the longstanding traditions surrounding the close relationship between poetry and painting, Jan Greenberg invited more than forty contemporary American poets to each compose a poem in dialogue with a work of twentieth-century American visual art....

(The entire section contains 955 words.)

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Editor: Jan Greenberg

First published: 2001

Type of work: Poetry

The Poems

In line with the longstanding traditions surrounding the close relationship between poetry and painting, Jan Greenberg invited more than forty contemporary American poets to each compose a poem in dialogue with a work of twentieth-century American visual art. This volume is the result of that process and is a work that Greenberg asserts is a celebration of "the power of art to inspire language" (4). The original concept for the volume came out of the editor's own youthful experience of being inspired to write poetry while studying a bronze sculpture of a dancer by Edgar Degas and, as an adult, finding that the insights of poetry assisted in bringing readers and viewers together in the close and thoughtful examination of works of American art.

The volume is organized into four thematic groupings in a structure that came together through commonalities among the completed poems, rather than based on chronology, style, or other category inherent to the works of art. The four sections of the book are stories, voices, impressions, and expressions. Unsurprisingly, these categories have more to say about poetry than they do about visual art, and they shape the reader's journey through the poems in a complementary and logical fashion. Within the section of "Stories," the poems focus on a memory or anecdote inspired in some fashion by the work of art, but vocalizing a story from the poet . "Voices" groups a category of poems in which the poet attempts to enter into the work of art and give voice to the figures or objects represented in the piece. "Impressions" offers perhaps the closest reciprocal association between work of art and poem, as this category focuses on description, sight, and interpretation. Finally, in "Expressions" the focus is on the interrelationships of form, light, or space between visual form and poetic language.

Beautifully illustrated with large, color plates of each work of art, the volume strives to create for the viewer/reader an intimate experience of art and poem. Depending on the proportions of the work of art and the length and structure of the poem, some individual works of art are laid out over a two-page spread, while others occupy a single leaf and thus face another art/poem pair. These relationships are carefully curated so that they can be considered between works of art and poems that are positioned adjacent to one another. Greenberg encourages readers to move through the volume as on "an imaginary walk through . . . a gallery" and to use this experience as inspiration to pen their own poetry (5). This concept allows the reader/viewer to consider the ways in which art is intended to inspire the imagination, open the mind, and to encourage the viewer to see the world a little differently.

Within this structure, the poems offer an array of perspectives, voices, and forms. Some are closely keyed in to the subject matter of the works of art. Others, as in Ronald Wallace's "Mobile/Stabile" about sculptor Alexander Calder, move beyond the individual work of art to memorialize an artist's contributions. One of the most interesting poems, "Naming, Or There is no such thing as an Indian," by Joy Harjo, reflects on Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's painting Indian, Indio, Indigenous (1992). Harjo, an American Indian poet and member of the Mvskoke Nation, offers a poem in intimate parallel and dialogue with Quick-to-See Smith's work, but one that claims the limits of knowledge for a reader outside of the indigenous community. Both poet and painter consider the concept of identity tied to the names associated with it, and Harjo carves out a space of protection, in which the true name "is unspeakable / by those who would disrespect us" though known to all within the community (35). As this example highlights, the works of art represent a diversity of voices across the canon of twentieth-century American art. Many explicitly engage the concept of identity and nationalism, though the concept of Americanness is equally explored in genre scenes, especially of urban and small-town life and snapshots of nature.

Critical Evaluation

Modern art of the twentieth century can be challenging for viewers who have not been steeped in the intellectual traditions accompanying the movements of the century. This volume, published on the eve of the new millennium, offers fresh access to these works through the associations, imagination, and experience of poetry. Similarly, although poetry does not always connect easily with young readers, these texts are written to inspire just such an audience. Heart to Heart does not burden the reader/viewer with details of theory and methodology, but instead it allows poets to open new directions of sight and thought in dialogue with works of visual art. Consciously writing for a young audience, the poets consider big themes of gender, race, and identity with a goal of inspiring young minds to reflect on issues and see themselves in both art and verse. This volume does not attempt to offer a comprehensive overview of art of the twentieth century, but it does work to memorialize and reflect on the contributions of American artists across these years. From the promise of the roaring twenties, to the bombast of the postwar years, and through the probing cultural critiques of the 1990s, these pairings of poems and images offer artistic reflections on watershed moments of history, capturing their own version of events concerning the struggles of the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Galda, Lee, et al., editors. Literature and the Child. 8th ed., Cengage Learning, 2014.
  • McPhillips, Shirley. Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers. Stenhouse Publishers, 2014.
  • Salas, Laura Purdie, et al. "The Synergy of Poetry and Content Areas: Reading Poetry across the Curriculum." Journal of Children's Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, 2015, pp.48−53.
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