The title of John Ashbery’s poem, ‘And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name’ is an allusion to Horace’s “Ars Poetica.” The Latin phrase, “Ut Pictura Poesis” appears near the end of this book. It means “as is painting so is poetry.” So, the reference to poetry which is similar to painting has something to do with the subject matter of the text. In this poem, Ashbery talks about this concept which reveals poetry as an art form that shows, not tells. Any pictorial representation regarding the general object or thoughts, if expressed in words, it is poetry. On the other hand, the poet is of the view that poetry, in general, originates from the “extreme austerity of an almost empty mind.”
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In this poem, Ashbery talks with himself regarding what topic he should write a poem on. He thinks what should be suitable for writing. Through talking with himself, he presents a few suggestions. One such suggestion is that coming out of the room and visualizing nature as it is. This will help the poet to paint the picture in words. Apart from that, the speaker is seen to be wandering outside in search of a topic. But, somehow he seems troubled with the external happenings that create chaos in his mind. In the end, he explores the nature of poetry and how the generation seeks “other centers of communication.”
You can read the full poem here.
This poem is in a single stanza consisting of 30 lines. The length of the lines is not equal. Some are long in comparison to the neighboring ones. Being a modern poem, it does not contain a set rhyme scheme. The overall verse is in free verse. It does not lack the rhythm for the use of internal rhyming. Through repetitions of consonant and vowel sounds, Ashbery created this rhythm in between the lines. Hence, the flow never breaks nor halts. It flows as a single entity that embodies the mind of the writer. While metrically analyzing the lines, one can find that this piece contains both the iambic and trochaic meter. In some instances, the poet also uses some metrical variations.
This thought-provoking piece is filled with various literary devices. In the title, the first device that comes to attention is an allusion. Alongside that, there is also a personification in it. The poet compares poetry to a lady. In the text, Ashbery makes use of enjambment for internally connecting the lines. For instance, if a reader looks at the first few lines (except the first line), this device can be seen. Besides, the poet uses alliteration. As an example, “Bothered about beauty” contains an alliteration of the “b” sound. The irony is another device that is present in this poem. This device can be found in the lines, “Certainly whatever funny happens to you/ Is OK.” One can also find the use of metaphors, such as “poem-painting” and “Dull-sounding ones.”
You can’t say it that way any more.
Of you, you who have so many lovers,
‘And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name’ begins with a statement, “You can’t say it that way any more.” At first, readers can be confused with the use of such a statement. It is a direct reference to the title. In the title, Ashbery makes it clear that the real name of poetry is painting. Using this quote from Horace, the poet refers to the imagist aspect of a piece of poetry. It is meant for showing the readers. But, modern poetry lacks this feature. That’s why the poetic persona says that one cannot say poetry is a pictorial representation through words.
If the speaker is bothered about beauty, he has to come out into the open, into a clearing, and rest. Then he can visualize the beauty of nature. Thereafter, the speaker ironically remarks if anything happens with him, in the meantime, he has to bear it for nature’s sake. As here the poet talks about himself, he remarks, he has to come out of his room and has to intake everything happening outside. The process would be strange to a person like him whose poetry has many admirers.
People who look up to you and are willing
Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.
In the lines quoted above, the speaker refers to his admirers. They look up to him and can do things for him. But, the poet thinks it’s not right. If they knew about the reality of versification, they would not have done so. While reading this line, a reader can understand that the speaker is welcoming self-criticism for a constructive purpose. The use of elision in the line, “that if they really knew you …” elongates this idea.
As he has mentioned about himself and his art, in the following line, he talks about “self-analysis.” Only following this method, the speaker evaluates himself and his art. After reading the next line, it becomes clear that he is trying to write a poem. That’s why he is confused regarding what to put in his “poem-painting.” It is a metaphor for the images used in poetry. An image of a flower comes into his mind. This flower is none other than the delphinium, a popular garden plant bearing tall spikes of blue flowers. But why he has mentioned it, is not clear.
Names of boys you once knew and their sleds,
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
He has previously written about some familiar topics. These are how boys play with sleds and. Besides, he centered his imagination on skyrockets. This image quickly reminds him whether they still exist or not. Using this rhetorical question, Ashbery refers to the generation gap and changing times.
Likewise, he had talked about several things in his poems. After determining on which topic he is going to write. Then, he tried to find words that are “low-keyed”, in the case of the poems in a monotonous mood. While he wrote grave poems, he chose “dull-sounding ones.”
In the next lines, the poem quickly shifts to the outside of his mind. Readers can find the speaker wandering in a market. There, someone approached him about buying a writing desk. Suddenly, the image of bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments fill the poem. Using this technique, the poet depicts what is happening inside his mind.
Humdrum testaments were scattered around. His head
Locked into mine. We were a seesaw. Something
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.
The last section is in parallel with the previous section. Readers can find the speaker is still talking about the external images. In the first line, he says the humdrum testaments of those who were around him, can be heard. Someone’s head locked into his. It seems the person and he was like a seesaw. The poet says so as they are uneven at an intellectual level.
He has to write on these events how they affect his thought-process. Apart from that, his empty mind is in extreme austerity. It collides with the lush landscape. This landscape is depicted as “Rousseau-like foliage.” The speaker thinks it should be communicated only for the sake of others and their desire to understand him.
However, he knows one day they will desert him for poems written by others. The readers are doing so to increase their understanding. But, it discourages the poet deeply.
This poem was published in John Ashbery’s poetry collection “Houseboat Days,” in 1987. In this piece, the poet explores the theme of modernism. According to the poet, modernism has a major impact on art forms. In the case of poetry, it mismatches the scheme of classical art and the absence of such elements somehow makes him thoughtful. Alongside that, he questions the veracity of the statement that art and the creator are both immortal in the last two lines of the poem. Historically, this piece belongs to the postmodern period. Hence, readers can find the poetic diction closely resembling the age.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in this poem.
- The God Called Poetry by Robert Graves – This poem describes the nature of poetry and how one can master this art to be a poet. Explore more Robert Graves’s poetry here.
- Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins – This poem deals with how poetry can be read and appreciated. It’s one of the best-known poems of Collins. Read more poetry from Billy Collins.
- Of Modern Poetry by Wallace Stevens – In this poem, Stevens shares his views concerning how modern poetry should be. It’s one of the popular poems of Wallace Stevens.
- Poetry by Marianne Moore – In this poem, Moore shares her feelings concerning poetry.