New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Art into Poetry, Poetry into Art – The Blue Guitar

David Hockney – self portrait with blue guitar


As a poet I have always been interested in how works of art can inspire writing – partly as yet another way of steering around writers’ block. If the words will not come, then looking at paintings that inspire you, interest you, or even alarm you, can be the button you might need to press.

Of course, it works the other way too. Artists can be inspired by poetry, and can produce paintings that reflect that inspiration. Sir John Everett Millais, painted Ophelia over 1851–2, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii when, half crazed, Ophelia drowns herself after Hamlet has murdered her father.

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais,

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.


In 1888 fellow pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse painted his famous Lady of Shallot, inspired by Tennyson’s poem. (Incidentally it is a brilliant painting to study for examples of the use of symbolism in art, see below*)






However, what I want write about today is the peculiar circularity of responses to Picasso’s The Ol

d Guitarist.  The artist David Hockney was impressed by Picasso’s work using the process of  colour et

ching and he went on to develop the technique further in his own work. He created a series of etchings in Blue Guitar: Etchings by David Hockney Who Was Inspired by Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired by Pablo Picasso Petersburg Ltd; First Edition edition (Oct. 1977) ISBN-13: 978-0902825031


Wallace Stevens, 1879 – 1955, was an American modernist poet. He wrote a very long poem, The Man with the Blue Guitar,  see below, ** probably in homage to The Old Guitarist .

 “They said ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’”

This is an entertaining take on how art is life is art. The whole poem is a long meditation on the way life and art intersect. Although, perhaps mischievously, Stevens claimed that his poem was not influenced by a single painting, the poem’s themes and approaches do reflect the painting’s content.

What is fascinating is to see how Hockney’s intense close attention has added extra layers to both Picasso’s painting and to Wallace’s poem. Like a snake biting its own tail, this is a perfect illustration of how art affects life, and how life is encased in art.

The Art Institute Chicago, in  its Exhibition label, The Artist and the Poet, February 1–June 2, 2013, Galleries 124–127, usefully summarises how poetry has often fed into Hockney’s work.:-

“Since the early 1960s, David Hockney has sought ways to meld his modern aesthetic with  style with highly personalized subject matter. He started by inserting fragments of poems into his paintings, as, for example, in We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961),

Hockney, David;
We Two Boys Together Clinging;
Arts Council Collection

which integrates two lines from a Walt Whitman poem of the same title. Fifteen years later, inspired by Wallace Stevens’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (1937), with its themes of representation and imaginative transformation, Hockney made 10 drawings in colored inks and crayons. With the aid of master printer Aldo Crommelynck those drawings were converted into 20 mixed intaglio prints using a color-etching process initially developed for Pablo Picasso.

While not a literal illustratio nof Stevens’s poem, the print series The Blue Guitar interprets its themes in visual terms, and most of the images show Hockney’s love of Picasso. The print Old Guitarist juxtaposes the Art Institute’s famous painting of 1903–04 (1926.253) with later Picasso iconography. Other sheets likewise contrast Picasso’s different phases within the same image; throughout the series, Hockney distinguishes the disparate styles by using different colors.


It is perhaps Hockney’s Blue Guitar that has perpetuated the idea that Wallace Stevens was similarly inspired by Picasso’s Old Guitarist. Although Stevens was familiar with modern art and no doubt saw the painting when it was exhibited at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1934, he insisted that no one picture inspired his famous poem. ”



An online catalogue gives an overview of  Hockney’s inspiring  project.

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*”Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott of 1888 reveals his careful faithfulness to the setting of the poem. At the close of the day “robed in snowy white” and seated in the boat with her name written on the prow, the Lady loosens the chain that binds her to the island, symbolically freeing herself from her self-imposed imprisonment. (She)  sets out in a trancelike state with a “glassy countenance.” Departing from the poem, Waterhouse has placed a crucifix and three candles in the prow of the boat, by which means he reinforces the funereal tone of her embarkation. She takes with her the tapestry representing her prior life, which she has surrendered for love, and decorated with scenes of the world that she has determined to join. The single leaf that has fallen into her lap poignantly tells her story: her life is over; she is the “fallen leaf,” fallen, dying. For love of Lancelot, she has renounced her life; she is a martyr for love — and a fallen woman”

Pictorial Interpretations of “The Lady of Shalott”: The Lady in her Boat – Elizabeth Nelson



**Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (excerpts)



The man bent over his guitar,

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.


They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”


The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”


And they said then, “But play, you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,


A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are.”




I cannot bring a world quite round,

Although I patch it as I can.


I sing a hero’s head, large eye

And bearded bronze, but not a man,


Although I patch him as I can

And reach through him almost to man.


If to serenade almost to man

Is to miss, by that, things as they are,


Say it is the serenade

Of a man that plays a blue guitar.




Ah, but to play man number one,

To drive the dagger in his heart,


To lay his brain upon the board

And pick the acrid colors out,


To nail his thought across the door,

Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,


To strike his living hi and ho,

To tick it, tock it, turn it true,


To bang from it a savage blue,

Jangling the metal of the strings




So that’s life, then: things as they are?

It picks its way on the blue guitar.


A million people on one string?

And all their manner in the thing,


And all their manner, right and wrong,

And all their manner, weak and strong?


The feelings crazily, craftily call,

Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,


And that’s life, then: things as they are,

This buzzing of the blue guitar.




Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,

Of the torches wisping in the underground,


Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.

There are no shadows in our sun,


Day is desire and night is sleep.

There are no shadows anywhere.


The earth, for us, is flat and bare.

There are no shadows. Poetry


Exceeding music must take the place

Of empty heaven and its hymns,


Ourselves in poetry must take their place,

Even in the chattering of your guitar.




A tune beyond us as we are,

Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;


Ourselves in the tune as if in space,

Yet nothing changed, except the place


Of things as they are and only the place

As you play them, on the blue guitar,


Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,

Perceived in a final atmosphere;


For a moment final, in the way

The thinking of art seems final when


The thinking of god is smoky dew.

The tune is space. The blue guitar


Becomes the place of things as they are,

A composing of senses of the guitar.




It is the sun that shares our works.

The moon shares nothing. It is a sea.


When shall I come to say of the sun,

It is a sea; it shares nothing;


The sun no longer shares our works

And the earth is alive with creeping men,


Mechanical beetles never quite warm?

And shall I then stand in the sun, as now


I stand in the moon, and call it good,

The immaculate, the merciful good,


Detached from us, from things as they are?

Not to be part of the sun? To stand


Remote and call it merciful?

The strings are cold on the blue guitar.




The vivid, florid, turgid sky,

The drenching thunder rolling by,


The morning deluged still by night,

The clouds tumultuously bright


And the feeling heavy in cold chords

Struggling toward impassioned choirs,


Crying among the clouds, enraged

By gold antagonists in air–


I know my lazy, leaden twang

Is like the reason in a storm;


And yet it brings the storm to bear.

I twang it out and leave it there.




And the color, the overcast blue

Of the air, in which the blue guitar


Is a form, described but difficult,

And I am merely a shadow hunched


Above the arrowy, still strings,

The maker of a thing yet to be made;


The color like a thought that grows

Out of a mood, the tragic robe


Of the actor, half his gesture, half

His speech, the dress of his meaning, silk


Sodden with his melancholy words,

The weather of his stage, himself.




Raise reddest columns. Toll a bell

And clap the hollows full of tin.


Throw papers in the streets, the wills

Of the dead, majestic in their seals.


And the beautiful trombones-behold

The approach of him whom none believes,


Whom all believe that all believe,

A pagan in a varnished care.


Roll a drum upon the blue guitar.

Lean from the steeple. Cry aloud,


“Here am I, my adversary, that

Confront you, hoo-ing the slick trombones,


Yet with a petty misery

At heart, a petty misery,


Ever the prelude to your end,

The touch that topples men and rock.”






Is this picture of Picasso’s, this “hoard

Of destructions”, a picture of ourselves,


Now, an image of our society?

Do I sit, deformed, a naked egg,


Catching at Good-bye, harvest moon,

Without seeing the harvest or the moon?


Things as they are have been destroyed.

Have I? Am I a man that is dead


At a table on which the food is cold?

Is my thought a memory, not alive?


Is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood

And whichever it may be, is it mine?






A few final solutions, like a duet

With the undertaker: a voice in the clouds,


Another on earth, the one a voice

Of ether, the other smelling of drink,


The voice of ether prevailing, the swell

Of the undertaker’s song in the snow


Apostrophizing wreaths, the voice

In the clouds serene and final, next


The grunted breath scene and final,

The imagined and the real, thought


And the truth, Dichtung und Wahrheit, all

Confusion solved, as in a refrain


One keeps on playing year by year,

Concerning the nature of things as they are.






From this I shall evolve a man.

This is his essence: the old fantoche


Hanging his shawl upon the wind,

Like something on the stage, puffed out,


His strutting studied through centuries.

At last, in spite of his manner, his eye


A-cock at the cross-piece on a pole

Supporting heavy cables, slung


Through Oxidia, banal suburb,

One-half of all its installments paid.


Dew-dapper clapper-traps, blazing

From crusty stacks above machines.


Ecce, Oxidia is the seed

Dropped out of this amber-ember pod,


Oxidia is the soot of fire,

Oxidia is Olympia.




How long and late the pheasant sleeps

The employer and employee contend,


Combat, compose their droll affair.

The bubbling sun will bubble up,


Spring sparkle and the cock-bird shriek.

The employer and employee will hear


And continue their affair. The shriek

Will rack the thickets. There is no place,


Here, for the lark fixed in the mind,

In the museum of the sky. The cock


Will claw sleep. Morning is not sun,

It is this posture of the nerves,


As if a blunted player clutched

The nuances of the blue guitar.


It must be this rhapsody or none,

The rhapsody of things as they are.





Throw away the lights, the definitions,

And say of what you see in the dark


That it is this or that it is that,

But do not use the rotted names.


How should you walk in that space and know

Nothing of the madness of space,


Nothing of its jocular procreations?

Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand


Between you and the shapes you take

When the crust of shape has been destroyed.


You as you are? You are yourself.

The blue guitar surprises you.





That generation’s dream, aviled

In the mud, in Monday’s dirty light,


That’s it, the only dream they knew,

Time in its final block, not time


To come, a wrangling of two dreams.

Here is the bread of time to come,


Here is its actual stone. The bread

Will be our bread, the stone will be


Our bed and we shall sleep by night.

We shall forget by day, except


The moments when we choose to play

The imagined pine, the imagined jay.








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