A Cubist Glimpse

Juan Gris, The Fruit Bowl

Juan Gris, The Fruit Bowl

I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it.
—Frank O’Hara

The poet Pierre Reverdy is reputed to have said, “From 1910 to 1914 I learned the cubist lesson.” I’ve yet to find out what lesson he felt he learned, but he certainly spent a lot of time among Cubist painters. Each of the poems in his collection Au Soleil du plafond refers to a still life by Juan Gris, one of which, Compotier (The Fruit Bowl), is on display in the current exhibition of Cubist works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A lot of ink has been spilled on Cubism in visual art and plenty more on its application to the other arts. I’m skeptical about whether its principles translate to poetry or music, except in a broad conceptual sense, but I’m curious to know more. For now, as I depart the internet (more or less) for the coming holiday, here’s a Cubist glimpse. “The Cubist style,” according to one description,

emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, rejecting the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modeling, and chiaroscuro and refuting time-honoured theories of art as the imitation of nature. Cubist painters were not bound to copying form, texture, colour, and space; instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects, whose several sides were seen simultaneously.

Mary Ann Caws, in her introduction to a collection of Pierre Reverdy’s poems, wrote that his “early poems earned him the reputation of being a cubist poet,” and the collection’s poems, taken together, “constitute a kind of cubist still life, perceptible from many angles at once.”

While, in A Note on Pierre Reverdy, John Ashbery didn’t refer to Reverdy’s work as Cubist, he did write this:

Reverdy’s poetry avoids the disciplines of Surrealist poetry and is the richer for it. He is not afraid to experiment with language and syntax, and it is often difficult to determine whether a particular line belongs with the preceding sentence or the one following it. The lines drift across the page as overheard human speech drifts across our hearing: fragments of conversation, dismembered advertising slogans or warning signs in the Métro appear and remain preserved in the rock crystal of the poem. [John Ashbery, Selected Prose, p. 21]

I like Ashbery’s formulation, and I like that he stays away from the label of Cubism. Certainly, in the poem that relates to the Gris painting shown here, the angle of vision isn’t stable—that hand is moving. But is it Cubist? I don’t know. I sense the movement of the poem more as drifting consciousness than of “fragmented objects” seen simultaneously from several sides. The text, or so it seems to me, can’t escape its temporal nature in the way a painting can. But what do I know?

Here’s the poem, in French and English:

Une main, vers les fruits dressés, s’avance et, timidement, comme une abeille, les survole. Le cercle où se glissent les doigts est tendu dessous comme un piège – puis reprennent leur vol, laissant au fond du plat une cicatrice vermeille. Une goutte de sang, de miel au bout des ongles. Entre la lumière et les dents, la trame du désir tisse la coupe aux lèvres.

A hand reaches toward the arrangement of fruit and, like a bee, hovers over it. The circle where the fingers glide is drawn tight as a trap—then they resume their flight, leaving at the bottom of the dish a bright red scar. A drop of blood, of honey, on the fingertips. Between light and teeth, the web of desire weaves the bowlful of lips.

Listening List

“Cubist” compositions by Igor Stravinsky

Here, too, the appellation Cubism seems to me to fall apart in the face of the temporal nature of music; but again, what do I know? Just for amusement, Richard Anthony Leonard, commenting mid-20th century on these and other Stravinsky pieces, had an oh-so-slightly different view:

These works, according to the composer, were “in the style of the eighteenth-century viewed from the standpoint of to-day.” The view could not have been very good, for often the results were an odd mixture of old counterpoint and new atonality. [Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia, 1954 edition, p. 532]

On Spotify

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920 version)  (program notes here)

Stripping the term “symphonies” of its Classical-era associations, Stravinsky here invokes the word’s root meaning, “sounding together.” To this end, Stravinsky rapidly juxtaposes blocks of sound, each with its own instrumental, rhythmic, and temporal identity. The effect is a kind of disjointed, collage-like form, whose visual corollary can be found in the Cubist canvases of his friend and collaborator Pablo Picasso. [citation]

Octet for Wind Instruments (1922-23, rev.1952) (program notes here)

Claims for the Octet as Cubist have been made as well. Whether and the extent to which such claims are useful is for another day. For now, here’s Stravinsky on the subject of the Octet:

My Octet is a musical object. This object has a form and that form is influenced by the musical matter of which it is composed. My Octet is not an emotive work, but a musical composition that is based on objective elements that are sufficient in themselves. I have excluded all nuances between the forte and the piano. Form, in my music, derives from counterpoint as the only means through which the attention of the composer is concentrated on purely musical questions. This sort of music has no other aim than to be sufficient in itself. In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems, and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be of any interest in music.

On YouTube

Symphonies of Wind Instruments 

Octet for Wind Instruments 

Bonus Track

Frank O’Hara reading Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul from Lunch Poems


Credits: The photo credit for the image at the head of the text is the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. A link to the online exhibit may be found here.  The O’Hara poem from which the quotation at the head of the post is taken may be found here. The sources for the remaining quotations used may be found at the links indicated in the text. The lack of knowledge about all subjects addressed in this post is entirely my own.


Reflections on The Death of Klinghoffer


When asked about her libretto for the opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, Alice Goodman, whose voice has not been heard nearly enough in the current discussions, said:

Our world has had, since before I was born, histories of people dehumanizing other people, of which the Jewish people have been the most notable of subjects, of victims. And so I think that it is absolutely paramount that civilization, that people who claim to be humane, civilized, moral, and, as it were, looking to a higher power, should know better than to wish to dehumanize anyone and should be able to acknowledge also the darkness that is in each of us. So, in other words, there is nothing that is human that should be foreign to us. That’s one of the things that art exists to express. Continue reading

Now The Leaves Are Falling Fast

1 IMG_5905_edited-1Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last;
Nurses to the graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.

—W. H. Auden, from Autumn Song

Now autumn is well past its peak, the ground littered in yellow, red, and brown. The oaks are last to shed their leaves, holding fast to some until the spring. Continue reading

Colors of the Day & Music of the Night

1 IMG_5780_edited-1

1 IMG_5775_edited-1I’ve been down in New York City the past few days. As marathoners on Fifth Avenue faced frigid winds, the maidens in the Central Park Conservatory Garden danced blithely amid chrysanthemums in bloom. Continue reading

Living the Non-Narrative Life with Nielsen, Ashbery, and Ives

Housatonic River at Bull's Bridge, Kent, Connecticut

Housatonic River at Bull’s Bridge, Kent, Connecticut

Where was I?
—John Ashbery (from The Skaters)

If you didn’t know what was going to happen next would you live your life any differently?
—Charles Bernstein (from The Meandering Yangtze)

At the New York Philharmonic concert of Carl Nielsen’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, conductor Alan Gilbert said, with palpable glee, that the symphonies were “like life.” Composer Daniel Felsenfeld, in his pre-concert talk, said something similar: that the symphonies convey what it means to be human. He went on to say, of the Sixth Symphony’s final movement, that the only composer it reminded him of was Charles Ives: “things come in and out and they don’t really jibe.” Continue reading