In 1949, the artist Cy Twombly submitted a grant application to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that included a recommendation letter from his sole art instructor at Washington and Lee University. “I feel that he will develop into a poet in paint,” volunteered the instructor then, “and that it will be a strong poetry as he is not easily changed from his purposes.”
The instructor’s remarks proved variously accurate. For amidst what became the artist’s blusterous scrawls and splatterings of paint, Twombly threaded in passages and themes from the poetry of Sappho, Homer, Virgil, Keats, Cavafy, and others. The verses often unwind spool-like in the painter’s dancerly script, and raise a variety of questions regarding the verbal component of Twombly’s work — work that declares nothing beyond itself and its viscerally felt, fidgety elegance, but that nevertheless talks, recites, and references.
“What does Twombly’s poetry ‘say’ about his work that the work doesn’t already say at gut-level?” asks Mary Jacobus in Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint (Princeton University Press), a fresh and intricate study of Twombly’s citations and overall engagement with verse. A professor emerita of English at Cambridge University and Cornell, Jacobus was able to secure special access to Twombly’s home library in Gaeta, Italy. Offering close readings of those books and the artist’s mark-ups within them (while also drawing on an array of thinkers and scholars, especially Roland Barthes), she profitably confronts Twombly’s work as a literary critic. Sifting through his sources, she emerges with readings that, if speculative at times, are magnetic in their originality, enriching the work with themes of memory, time, concealment, sexuality, translation, and what she describes at one point as, “the inexhaustible relation of image and text — distinct, yet propped on one another.”
For Jacobus, Twombly’s deployment of poetry is modern through and through. “Quotation signals Twombly’s one-time action in the ‘now’ of writing, rather than his membership in the dead poets’ society,” she offers. She scrutinizes, for example, Twombly’s practice of systematically editing, mixing, and effacing either parts or whole sections of lines that would enter his work (see his heavily edited edition of George Seferis’s Three Secret Poems). Jacobus contextualizes these habits with Dadaist collage techniques, Mallarmé’s typographical experiments, and Ezra Pound’s non-literal translations of poetry. In Twombly’s work, she claims, poems are not evoked for their “transcendent cultural value,” but instead “embrace elements of destruction and negativity.”
One of countless paintings taken up by the book, Twombly’s late tripartite painting “Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)” (1994) is overrun with references to Catullus, Cavafy, Seferis, and Rilke. Completed over the course of two decades and exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery to coincide with Twombly’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1994, the wide painting synoptically presents the artist’s career across its stylistically different surfaces. The painting conflates two Catullus poems in its title, which convey two different forms of departure, and evokes Rilke’s “we too just/once/and never again,” as well as Seferis’s wanderings in exile. The artwork takes a backward look, heavy with time, and is full of both elegiac mourning and anticipation for the future. Within it the very act of quotation embodies “a mode of memory and a form of recounting.” This represents just one moment where Jacobus demonstrates how Twombly’s poetry, once read, can powerfully crystalize his works.
When the scholar reads Twombly, she also arrives at a more politically aware and defiant sort of artist. Challenging the conventional wisdom of historians and critics who regard the artist, in Jacobus’s words, as “expatriate American, isolated from politics and removed from the events of his time and country,” the study veers into an examination of war, pointing out the ways in which Twombly’s references to classical poetry were put in service of the present. Working from Alexander Pope’s stirring translation of Homer’s The Iliad, Jacobus proposes that Twombly’s “Fifty Days at Iliam” (1978), based upon that translation, is “date-stamped with its historical moment, the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War.” Her analysis of “The Shield of Achilles” canvas within that 10-part cycle, for example, pushes adventurously for a link to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, citing in part Pope’s conclusion to Homer: “Last o’er the urn the sacred Earth they spread,/And rais’d the Tomb, Memorial of the Dead.”
A great deal more is covered in this dense and ambitious text. But its primary focus — its common refrain — concerns the sticky relationship between words, images, and things. This reaches something of an apex in Jacobus’s analysis of the runny, viscous paintings from the Rose (2008) series, which prominently feature passages from Rilke’s rose-themed lyrics. Foregrounding themes from those poems, she describes the rose as a symbol for “the incommensurability of word and thing — the conundrum of poetry itself.” She quotes Rilke:
We arrange and we compose
words in so many ways,
but when will we find ways
to be equal to the rose?
According to Jacobus, Twombly’s rose paintings enclose a similar tension. In them words and images, “near neighbors, yet never quite touching,” oscillate between each other — between meaning and sensation. To follow Jacobus is to recognize that to and fro as it recurs across Twombly’s art — and also to delight in it.