New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Art and Poetry – more on how poems can interact with pictures, by Shirley Bell

Circle Logo

I am back on one of my favourite subjects: the way the other arts can inform poetry.

In this feature,  I am looking at the way that a work of art can insinuate itself into your consciousness and take up residence there, like a baleful crow, which will flap its wings from time to time.

I have written a lot of poetry based on the disturbing work of Max Beckman.

According to Wikipedia, “Max Beckmann was a German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer. Although he is classified as an Expressionist artist, he rejected both the term and the movement”.

So in this issue I am putting my money where my mouth is and illustrating Max Beckmann’s  Night with a poem I wrote many years ago. I was both repelled and fascinated by the total nihilism of this work. I think that to write about a work of art you must have been profoundly moved, either positively or negatively. In this case the darkness of it generated this poem.

Again  I quote Wikipedia: “The Night is a 20th-century painting by German artist Max Beckmann, created between the years of 1918 and 1919. It is an icon of the post-World War I movement, Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. It is an oil painting on canvas, located at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.[1]”


Max Beckmann’s Night


All these things come to me in black and white
like virtue and crime. Yes, black and white
are the two elements which concern me.

Here are worlds which fall apart.
The red throat of the gramophone shrieks
at that woman’s oblique crucifixion, and
they are breaking the arm of the man they hang.
Such good tradesmen!
How they concentrate on plumbing depths –
though their own jaws are bound, like corpses’.

One sucks a peaceful pipe
and appraises the job he has in hand,
while the one on the right – bored, waiting –
stares out of the picture. The child
beneath his elbow clings with a monkey facility.
Is the suction of its gaze a well of innocence
or of dreadful apprenticed complicity?
And who is the woman who looks away
as though she is not involved?

They all wait, whose turn must come.
Recognition is congealing there, in the
crimsons spattered on the painted surface.
“Who?” it says. Killing or dying?

Let me take part in your boredom
and in your dreams while you take part in mine
which may be yours as well.


  • The quotations are from On My Painting, Max Beckmann. 1938 –  Publisher Harry N. Abrams, 2003 1854374567, 9781854374561
  • My poem is from my book, Dark Is A Way and Light Is A Place: Published poetry 1982-2016  which collects together all my archived material at the University of Lincoln, up to June 2016






Some poetry and pictures from Demystifying Poetry Using Women’s Ekphrasis Kristen
S. Kurzawski. http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_10.01.11_u

I found this fascinating article and I can highly recommend it ; it has introduced me to some pictures and poems that I either only knew half of, or did not know at all.



Mourning Picture by Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1850–1923) who was an American portrait, genre  and still life painter (Wikipedia) 

I have seen this curious picture before but had not seen the poem by Adrienne Rich which follows.  The painting with its frozen tableaux is explained by the fact that the child, 9 year old Effie, is dead.

Her traumatized parents occupy one part of the canvas while Effie is in a separate and gilded world.









Wikepedia: Adrienne Cecile Rich,  May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012, was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She was called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”,[1][2] and was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.”[3]










Mourning Picture

They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rocker
Out under the lilac bush.
And my father and mother darkly sit there. in black clothes.
Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill.
My doll lies in her wicker pram
Gazing at western Massachusetts.
This was our world.
I could remake each shaft of grass
Feeling its rasp on my fingers.
Draw out the map of every lilac leaf
Or the net of veins on my fathef s
Grief-tranced hand.
Out of my head. half-bursting.
Still filling, the dream condenses— Shadows. crystals, ceilings.
meadows. globes of dew.
Under the dull green of the lilacs, out in the light
Carving each spoke of the pram. the turned porch-pillars,
Under high early-summer clouds,
I am Effie. visible and invisible,
Remembering and remembered.
They will move from the house.
Give the toys and pets away.
Mute and rigid with loss my mother
Will ride the train to Baptist Corner.
The silk-spool will run bare.
I tell you, the thread that bound us lies
Faint as a web in the dew.
Should I make you. world. again.
Could I give back the leaf its skeleton, the air
Its early-summer cloud, the house
Its noonday presence. shadowless.
And leave this out? I am Effie. you were my dream





The next picture is equally disturbing.  In this case it is inexplicable. The atmosphere of the painting is like the surrealist world of de Chirico,  its static shapes full of hidden meaning. What are the women? And how do they relate to the tiny, distant figures of mermaids lazing on the beach, and to the enigmatic figure of the man in black.  Unlike Beckmann’s mayhem, or the poignant Effie and her desolate parents, this is a captivating painting to weave stories and theories about. Is it an escape from 1942 and its grim wartime existence, or is the dark coated man walking away from a paradise into horror of war?



Oil on canvas, 1942 Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids



Paul Delvaux  23 September 1897 – 20 July 1994) was a Belgian painter famous for his paintings of female nudes. He was influenced by the works of Giorgio de Chirico, and was also briefly associated with surrealism.






Lisel Mueller (born February 8, 1924) is an American poet. She won the U.S. National Book Award in 1981 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.








The Village of the Mermaids

Who is that man in black, walking
away from us into the distance?
The painter, they say, took a long time
finding his vision of the world.

The mermaids, if that is what they are
under their full-length skirts,
sit facing each other
all down the street, more of an alley,

in front of their gray row houses.
They all look the same, like a fair-haired
order of nuns, or like prostitutes
with chaste, identical faces.
How calm they are, with their vacant eyes,
their hands in laps that betray nothing.
Only one has scales on her dusky dress.

It is 1942; it is Europe,
and nothing fits. The one familiar figure
is the man in black approaching the sea,
and he is small and walking away from us.





You might also like

2 poems by Cathy Donelan

Cathy Donelan is a writer from the West of Ireland. Her fiction has appeared in ROPES, The Honest Ulsterman, Dodging The Rain, The Nottingham Review, Spontaneity and Blue Smoky Literary And Arts

Read More »

Stephen House

Stephen House: has had many plays commissioned and produced. He’s won two Awgie Awards (Australian Writers Guild), The Rhonda Jancovic Poetry Award for Social Justice,

Read More »

Highly Commended

Our guest judge Vivien Jones made an initial shortlist of twelve entries from the over sixty entries sent to her. From this longlist she selected

Read More »

Share this post with your friends

You may also enjoy
by Dave Kavanagh.   (Review of Scrivener, ProWritersAid & Natural…