Poems About Art & Music




Shapes, are you enough?

There are grumblings inside me

no food can stifle, no liquor can drown.


Will you comfort me? Outside this room

there are no chairs to sit in;

the sidewalks crawl for miles.


Where are your Christs,

your nymphs that I could romp with

through brooks and yellow fields?


Yet if so much order can be formed

with paint on cloth

between four sticks of wood,


and if order can be formed

by hanging paintings

on these four walls,


then order can be formed

on a page, in a city,

in the mist of a soul.

                                                                             At the Phillips Collection

prussian blue



My favorite in the box of 64

was Prussian Blue, rich with its hint

of green, blue enough to suggest

an exotic 19th-century

militaristic world.


I’d have colored everything Prussian Blue –

except tree trunks, hands, and faces –

but it had to be carefully rationed

lest, its paper cover stripped away,

it would wear down to nothing.


Without it: prosaic Umber and Sienna,

Yellow-Green, the all-but-useless White.

Adult life, I assumed, is when you own

all the Prussian Blue you’ll ever need

to color anything you want.




I ran into Bob, whose name

was now different and who now

was a photographer. He took my photo,

then handed me the camera, changing places:

he assumed my pose at the bus stop

and I, in the gutter as he’d been,

almost got hit by a bus,

but I snapped the picture.


A magazine announced Bob’s

“Retroactive Series,”

illustrated by two photos:

John Cage, taken by Bob,

and Bob, by John Cage.

I found the exhibition, huge room

after huge room – but all the walls

were hung with contact sheets.


I hunted and found us: Gloria Steinem,

Milton Glaser, etc., and me –

all of us famous people

were one inch high.

We all know what Andy Warhol said

about the 15-minute duration of fame;

for the thousands of us exhibited there,

the dimension was one inch.




At 17 I came to New York. The dormitory

was higher than most buildings I’d ever

been in. I ate in a coffee shop

where people never looked at you,

went on a tour of Bellevue

because it was a place, like Lindy’s

or the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

so legendary that being there was magic.


Some New York kids I met said,

“Let’s go to Carnegie Hall.” From Standing Room

we looked down at the Philharmonic

and their TV-star conductor, jumping

up and down on his podium, all creating

wonderful noise that filled the place

and vibrated to the roots of my hair. The things

you could take for granted in New York!




LASZLO Empty Pictures

For three years I didn’t go near

a canvas. Each month I would check

the tubes of paint, make sure

the caps were tight. For three years

the only work of art I could claim

was my love for her. Sometimes

I sketched clouds or made collages

from magazines, just to keep busy.


What remains of years of obsession,

years when an ending was unimaginable?

Beauty I can only remember,

beauty I cannot show. Nothing to sell,

nothing to hang on the wall.


sam the picture man



We humored him as he made his rounds,

selling candy from a cardboard box

and his shirt-cardboard paintings

of grinning, paisley-shaped animals.

We would mock him, fool or simpleton,

and buy his pictures for a quarter.


Years later I watch with my son

the amazing maneuvers on the campus lawn

of a jugglers’ convention. Sam is there,

as before, but feeble and less coherent.

His paintings are larger, more accomplished,

the creatures peaceful and multi-legged.


Prices are high, he tells me;

“I pay for the cardboard now

and I use more paint. They wrote me up

in the magazine last year.”

He puts his hand on my son’s head

and I pay five dollars for a picture.


That’s cheap for anyone’s masterpiece,

a smiling eight-legged monster

that bears another monster inside,

and cheap for my son, at seven, to be blessed

among jugglers in the springtime

by one of God’s own fools.





The photographer improves on reality

or helps it along. With brighter lighting

on the far side of your face,

he makes you look thinner.

He checks what shines,

adjusts what’s out of place.


Diffused light and special lenses

soften your imperfections. Retouching

corrects the errors of nature.


The resulting photo on your wall

depicts your better-looking twin,

who looks as you would look

if life and your own demanding nature

had treated you more kindly.




Jean tells how she’d go to pubs

and meet American soldiers – she’d sing

the latest songs – White Cliffs of Dover,

Berkeley Square – teenager in London

in the war years, time of privation,

of jokes in the bomb shelter. She tells us

in the fading light, surrounded

by wings of the building.


Every night, after feeding all

her younger brothers and sisters (mother

dead, her father an alcoholic),

out she’d go – it was a wonderful

time – “Sing us another one, Jeannie!” –

as well as a terrible time – “The boy

you danced with could be dead

the next week,” she says.


We hear a siren beyond the garden

walls – a resident rushed to the hospital.

An American married Jean, brought her

to Massachusetts; when he beat her,

she had to leave him. A nanny in Boston,

raising other women’s children –

when the husband died, her sons

began to visit her.


Tears in her eyes as we speak – there’s

a new director of the residents’ choir

who won’t let Jean sing solos,

so she’s quit the choir. “My heart

isn’t in it anymore. They all

like my songs – I know the words

of all the old songs – but she

doesn’t want me to sing them.”


Sing for us, I ask, sing

White Cliffs of Dover. “Here?” she asks.

“Here and now?” Please, I say,

and she sings – her light, clear soprano

reminding us of bright nights

when life was waiting for everyone young

to bite huge chunks and down them with beer

before the sirens wailed.





(hearing Martha Schlamme sing “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen”)

Time goes only forward, and that is why

we step in only one direction.

Maturity’s a game of manners,

not to spit at asses, not to cry,

not walk out of offices;

not say these things aloud,

but on this paper.


Would I a hundred years ago have been content,

in those grandfathers’ villages

of blushing, dainty Chaveles,

nailing together on market days

my rickety square table,

selling by cupfuls my little heaps

of raisins and almonds?


There was never a tiny white goat

beside my crib, to grow with me,

to help me sell, or keep me warm.

Now, in times of terrifying manhood,

I’d like to, sleeping, feel

his sparrow’s heartbeat

beneath my blanket.


                                                          klor veis tzigele: pure white little goat

                                                          rozhinkes mit mandlen: raisins and almonds

                                                          Chavele: girl’s name

Written in 1968



And no more watch the buds break out,

the children, brown and pale,

shrieking in their dragon-hunts.

Young leaves are hung

on all the branches.


So much wet – the gray, the black skies;

the drenching wind, the mud.

This is the most green springtime,

greener than springs remembered

and all imaginary springs.


The ocean’s rhythm is slower now.

Black waves slide up the beach

and scatter foam

that seeps into the sand.


The wind is smoother now,

the ocean’s rhythm weaker

in this wind. And this,

the last spring, ends soon.


All man’s ways speed the turning

of the world toward death.

The world is cold, as the sun

drops below the orange sky.

If this spring’s to be the last,


let’s burrow into the sunlight.

Come live with me as a butterfly

and we will spurn the flowers,

to fly above the waving grass

and drink the tears of antelope.

                                                               After Grieg

                                                               For Susan Lenoe

“There are a few species of noctuids

found in Asia and Africa which live

on the tears of antelope and cattle.”

(Corti, Butterflies and Moths)




The library was almost a shack –

a two-room white clapboard building

with a little of everything,

an oasis of literacy in the town.

They had a few LPs of classical music

and I always took out the limit

of two at a time.


When I was leaving for college

the librarian had me recommend

new records for purchase; she had

$200 of fine money to spend.

I gave her a list and she followed it

exactly – my taste at the time, my sense

of the beautiful, the worthy, and the outrageous

from Beethoven through Ravel to Stravinsky.


The library is gone, replaced

by a proper brick edifice;

I assume the records have been replaced

by CDs and cassettes.

But that was my first opportunity

for cultural influence, at least

in a two-room clapboard library.




I watch the full moon through

the telephone wires;


six cords are stretched between

the wooden poles;


the moon sits within them,

a whole note in a stave of music.


When the birds are silent for a moment

and the wind stops rustling the leaves,


purple dusk hums

with the music of the moon.


coquelicots (1) sg



The photo store has a machine that makes

old photos look good. You can zoom in

and crop on the image. It will save what’s curled

or losing emulsion. I’ve copied a few

for my mother; she wants help to remember

her dead. My grandparents pose as though

expecting to be deported. The images fade

like memories, dimmer each year.


I never take pictures, don’t like

imposing a camera on what I do or watch.

A whole year in Africa, I shot one roll of film.

Maybe I miss a lot. Sandy insisted we take

pictures of our trip to France. It was my idea

to have her pose in a field of poppies.

That’s why we have her in her flowered dress,

surrounded by Impressionist coquelicots.


Instead of photos I rely on a mental album,

with sections for good and bad memories.

The images fade but the feelings remain

and no one grows old. There are words, too,

that capture time better than chemicals

or pixels. Sometime I may write about

a smiling face in the pink dusk

of a French field of coquelicots.


coquelicots: poppies




A strange, somehow dangerous beatnik place—

some of the customers were barefoot—the waitress

with her long, straight hair was dressed in black.

The drinks were exotic—bitter espresso,

Constant Comment tea. We were 17.


Singers in rubber sandals pretended to be hillbillies—

since this was Boston, they sang of a “broken haht.”

Then a woman sat at the mike with her guitar

and sang songs from Vanguard albums:


The water is wide, I cannot cross over


and we held hands, poised at the edge of a bay.


And neither have I wings to fly


We breathed her fingers’ rhythm on the strings.


Give us a boat that will carry two

And both shall row, my love and I


Would anyone ever love me that much?

Why not us? Why not us, sitting in the smoky light

of a beatnik coffee house? Along the broad shore

the water would shine forever.


And both shall row, my love and I



  1. […] Source: Poems About Art & Music […]

  2. I’m speechless, Monsieur Figaro.

  3. Ed Curtis · · Reply

    I am touched. Clara Chipman was the librarian when I was younger. She was a neighbor but I don’t remember if she was there when I was 17. My focus had drifted elsewhere.

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