The Luncheon on the Grass or Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe


Free to air television being what it is I have taken to borrowing  documentaries from the local library.  This week I picked up Every Picture Tells a Story, distributed by Readers Digest and hosted by Waldemar Jansuzczak (apparently the David Attenborough of the English speaking art world).  Once I get past the sped up, handheld filmed title sequence, it’s been good, very good in fact.

So why am I talking about art and presenting you with a painting by Manet on my poetry blog?

Well, The Luncheon on the Grass or Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is the masterpiece that the first episode focuses on and while viewing it I had a personal epiphany…perhaps that’s too strong a word. It got me thinking.

Take a good look at the picture above without Googling any info, maybe do an image search and get a better quality picture.  Take a good look at it.  What do you notice?

While you are doing that I am going to blather on about how this picture sums up some of my difficulties with poetry, contemporary and historical.  This painting (and the same would go for almost any masterpiece) is a metaphor for my experience.

The Casual Observer/Reader

On first impressions it is a pleasurable painting to look at and understand (certainly easier than say abstract work).  You might notice that the women are naked while the men are clothed.  You might notice that one of the women is looking directly at the viewer, you might notice that she is of fuller figure.  You might notice other things.  You don’t have to really know anything about art(and here art may have an edge over the written word) to get some basic enjoyment/wonderment from looking.

I find some poetry to be like this ie broadly accessible, its syntax and diction fairly straightforward. I am thinking of Thomas Gunn, Billy Collins, blog visitors Michele Seminara and Ash Capes also come to mind.

We could leave the painting and poetry at this point and have an appreciation, an enjoyment.

What Jansuzczak does in this video is start to educate us in this painting, its artist and its context.  Thus we learn that:

  1. The figures in it are relatives and friends
  2. That it is referencing two classical paintings
  3. That the bird that sits in the top centre of picture is taking the place of the dove of peace and makes the painting sacrilegious.
  4. That the woman bathing has actually just finished urinating.
  5. That the central women looking out is challenging the viewer
  6. That this painting by referencing the classics (which displays similar levels of nudity) reveals the hypocrisy in modern mores.
  7. etc.

I find much contemporary poetry a little removed.  Now, I’m no idiot but I am not an academic or an academic poet but I love it when I understand what a poet is doing and saying.  I often feel that I could benefit from a Jansuzczak of the poetry world.  A lot of the analysis and reviews I read come across as academic and a little dry.

I find that I enjoy and understand the poetry of my friends and poetic colleagues because I understand them and where they are writing from.  As my circle of poetry reading expands though I find the process more difficult.  Sometimes I get lucky and a poet will blog and post videos, like Helen Mort (my fave English poet).  Sometimes you will get someone who verges on being that Jansuzczak like figure - an example of  that might be academic and poet Anthony Wilson writing in his post Introducing Chrissy Wilson.

I have been reading Plath lately and without a substantial study of her as a person, the context of her writing I feel a disconnect with a lot of her work. Is the only place that will find this information in a lengthy (and expensive) course of study? Is there a poet, a blogger out there that can communicate the body of contemporary or modern poetry in an accessible fashion?

I can’t help getting the feeling that a lot of poetry criticism and learning is locked up in texts aimed at other poets of the same persuasion that I am looking at  A Luncheon on the Grass and missing out on what the poet is doing and why it might be important. 

Your thoughts?


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