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Mission Statement

A lot of people don't realize how great poetry can be, and there are very few places where young people can be introduced to great poets. I created Poetry Soup to share my love for poetry and to inspire others to read more of it. In this podcast, which will come out 1-2 times a month, I will read and discuss poems by some of my favorite poets, such as Wislawa Szymborska, Tomaz Salumun, and Wallace Stevens. I hope you enjoy it!

Ep. 1: "The Painter" by John Ashbery


Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Each episode, I’ll discuss a different poem and poet. Today, I’ll be talking about a sestina by John Ashbery.

Imagine a painter that could never even begin a single painting. This is the subject of John Ashbery’s “The Painter.” This poem is a beautiful sestina (we’ll talk more about sestinas later) that Conner, the instructor of one of the Stone Soup writing workshops, brought up in one of his classes. 

John Ashbery was born on July 28, 1927, in Rochester, New York, the US. He was a member of the New York School of Poets, a group of poets, many of whom lived in New York City, who had similar writing styles. The school included some of my favorite poets. James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and Frank O’Hara were all members. Ashbery wrote a lot during his lifetime, including a novel called A Nest of Ninnies (published in 1969) with Schuyler and many poetry collections, including  Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, which was published in 1975 and won three awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Award. Ashbery also penned several plays and was an art critic (in fact, a book called Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957-1987, edited by Daniel Bergman, was published in 1989, containing Ashbery’s collected art reviews). Ashbery’s poems were also compiled into Collected Poems, 1956-1987, which made Ashbery the first poet to ever be published in the Library of America (LOA) series. John Ashbery died on September 3, 2017, in Hudson, New York, US, at the age of 90. 

Now I’m going to read “The Painter.” Afterwards, I’ll talk about it!

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.
So there was never any paint on his canvas
Until the people who lived in the buildings
Put him to work: “Try using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter’s moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer.”
How could he explain to them his prayer
That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.
Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush
In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait
Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.”
The news spread like wildfire through the buildings:
He had gone back to the sea for his subject.
Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”
Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush.
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.
They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

This is a miraculous example of a sestina — but what is a sestina? A sestina is a poetic form with all lines ending the same way. Did you notice how certain words repeated throughout the poem? Those are the six end words. Each line has to end with them, but they shift position in different stanzas. Each stanza has six lines. Each line ends with a word. The last word of the last line is the word that ends the first line of the next stanza. The end word of the first line becomes the end word of the second line. It’s a really complicated pattern, so it’s always helpful to have an example poem! A sestina has seven stanzas. The last stanza has three lines and uses two of the end words in each line. Sometimes, because this form can be restrictive, sestinas can sound clunky. “The Painter,” however, has done a very good job of flowing just like a free-form poem should.

Now I am led to talk about the poem itself. I’m not trying to be cliche when I say that this poem emphasizes the power of creativity. In the beginning of the poem, the painter sits and stares at the sea — but he doesn’t paint. The people in the buildings tell him to “try using the brush” and actually paint something. They tell him that if he can’t paint the sea, he should choose something else for his subject, so he chooses his wife. However, the painter still does not draw anything and returns to the sea as his subject. The ending of his poem is strange. The people become so angry that they throw his canvas off the top of the building into the ocean — but even though he has not painted anything, he is so involved in his art that the blank portrait has become himself. They are one and the same. In the last line, “as though his subject had decided to remain a prayer,” Ashbery shows that his painting was a hope — it was something silent, but beautiful, because he had imagined it. This poses the question: is it still a work of art if it isn’t put down on paper or if it doesn’t make sense to or please others?

This poem seems to be somewhat based on Ashbery’s experience — when W.H. Auden, for example, declared Ashbery’s book, Some Trees, as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize; he afterwards confessed he hadn’t understood a word of the manuscript. So, Ashbery may have written this poem as a response to his critics — it states that his poems don’t mean to make sense. 

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!

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