Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 12, 2018
Mary Jacobus Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 320 pp.; 96 color ills.; 37 b/w ills. Hardcover $45.00 (9780691170725)

“Where’s the poet?” Cy Twombly posed this question in a drawing he made in August 1960 while on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. Yet, as Mary Jacobus tells us in her new book, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, this is not merely the painter’s question but a quotation from an unfinished poem John Keats wrote in 1818. Furthermore, the borrowed Keats line is not alone in Twombly’s drawing. These words are accompanied by more text (the heading “Sonnet” and the phrase “mists of idleness”) as well as a grid of twelve numbered sections (with the numbers 13 and 14 squeezed along the bottom) containing three curiously doodled lines. As this drawing does, Jacobus’s book invites us to approach Twombly’s work as always more than just the sum of its constituent parts. Snatches of poetic quotations combine with grids, numbers turn into scribbles, all generating a fragile environment from which the poet we are looking for emerges.

The book’s subtitle comes from Charles Baudelaire’s essay on Eugène Delacroix, in which he dubs his contemporary a “translator” and a “poet in painting.” While Jacobus acknowledges that she is not the first to transpose this identification onto Twombly, her book is now the most extended and convincing discussion of its far-reaching implications for the artist. Reading Cy Twombly is framed by two concrete examples of Twombly’s intimate engagement with poetry: “Introduction: Twombly’s Books,” a tantalizing analysis of Twombly’s library in Gaeta, his Italian base on the coast between Naples and Rome; and “Postscript: Writing in Light,” a meditation on his collaboration with the Mexican poet Octavio Paz that explores a conception of the Baudelairean figure of the artist. Over the course of the eight intervening chapters, Jacobus highlights several differing aspects of the artist’s poetic engagements, covering an incredibly broad range of works with sensitivity to the artist’s biography and development, poetic genres, artistic methods, theoretical ideas, and historical frameworks. Rather than summarize these chapters here, I want to demonstrate how Jacobus’s two framing sections project and reflect processes of reading between poetry and painting inspired by Twombly’s work. Following Jacobus’s lead, as we make our way through her book, we experience a pivotal shift whereby we abandon a linear focus on Twombly’s acts of reading and writing in his practice as a painter and instead focus on how Twombly mirrors what Jacobus dubs “the paradoxical nonequivalence” (22) of Baudelaire’s modernist figure of the “poet in paint.”

While Jacobus, a self-confessed “literary critic,” may have some blind spots in her focus on “the role of poetry, translation, and writing” (x), both to key elements within the Twombly environment (e.g., number and compositional space) and to broader art-historical and interpretive frameworks (e.g., Twombly’s connections with Minimalism and his irreverent humor), her determined pursuit of the “writerly ‘high’” (58) that Roland Barthes marked in Twombly’s work is apparent at every turn of the page. Reading Reading Cy Twombly is less of an Odyssey in which we set out so as to return to the “poet in paint” we know and love than it is an Anabasis in which a series of intense misadventures and wanderings leads to “reseeing” (136) what Twombly means for us.

With her introduction set in Twombly’s library, Jacobus sets the stakes of her project unenviably high. Beautifully illustrated examples of book pages containing the artist’s “handwritten mark-ups, rough notes, textual cuts, paint marks, and illustrative doodles” (2) whet the appetite for future scholars to map the minutiae of Twombly’s active reading practice onto his working methods. At the same time, they also establish a framework for readings of his work that could prove to be overly literal. On one level this approach allows Jacobus to give compelling examples of Twombly editing and rearranging poems, striking out lines, changing words, and repeating phrasings, in which we are asked to picture Twombly “(book open) inking out, editing and splicing—creating a hybrid passage of his own” (46). At the same time, such images of this poet-painter in his books fail to translate into every twist of Jacobus’s analysis, proving more inconsistent in application as we progress through the book. For example, in spite of pointing out the number of editions and translations of Rilke’s poetry that Twombly owned, Jacobus does not consult them for her complex analysis of Twombly’s use of the poet in the five-part The Rose (2008). Meanwhile, there is no mention of Saint-John Perse amid a brief discussion of the flaming chariot of Twombly’s Anabasis (1983), in spite of an earlier note on how Perse’s poem of that same title was bookmarked in the artist’s copy of Selected Poems. (Twombly owned a stand-alone edition of T. S. Eliot’s translation of Perse’s Anabasis as well). Furthermore, while Jacobus includes a list of books found in the Gaeta library in her bibliography, it is a partial list that aligns only with her immediate interests, even for poetic works. For example, Twombly had multiple editions of James Joyce’s slim poetic volumes (Chamber Music and Pomes Penyeach), but these appear nowhere in Jacobus’s reckoning. Also missing from Jacobus’s library scene is the visual element of physical books, from their covers to illustrations. While Jacobus mentions Seamus Heaney in passing during a discussion of pastoral poetry, she makes no mention of the fact that Twombly not only owned the hardcover edition of Heaney’s 1991 collection Seeing Things but that he also took a photograph (in 1994) of the Celtic boat on its cover. This boat, as Jacobus mentions (without recognizing its origins in Heaney’s volume), was an “ideograph” that acted as a “form of self-quotation” (43) in paintings such as Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (1994) and Three Studies from the Temeraire (1998–99) and in the epic Lepanto (2001) series. Nonetheless, in spite of the bibliography’s selective application throughout the book, what Jacobus does achieve by starting our journey in Twombly’s library is much more significant: it grounds her readings in the mutual exchange between reading and writing as fundamental to Twombly’s art, as can be gleaned from the chapters that follow.

When we encounter the prepoetic Twombly of Jacobus’s first chapter, “Mediterranean Passages: Retrospect,” setting off from Black Mountain College on his formative travels to North Africa and Italy with Robert Rauschenberg, thanks to the library discussions we are already prepared for the pivotal moment at which “beautiful lines of poetry replace alien names; instead of fetish objects, a palimpsest of quotations. . . . Instead of the fetish, words” (36). Then, in a masterful reading of Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor, Jacobus transposes Twombly’s literal travels into poetic explorations, progressing from the formation of an artist to a late-career retrospective. By the second chapter, “Psychogram and Parnassus: How (Not) to Read a Twombly,” we are firmly located within the question of reading—by Twombly and of Twombly—only for writing and its deconstruction to take center stage in the third chapter, “Twombly’s Vagueness: The Poetics of Abstraction.” However, by midway through the fourth chapter, “Achilles’ Horses, Twombly’s War,” the poetic grounding established so far gives way to a different, more speculative approach. To continue the Anabasis analogy, this is the moment that Cyrus is killed and Xenophon and the Greeks must find their own path. To make sense of the shift that occurs in this chapter, we need to fast-forward to the very end of the book. Jacobus concludes Reading Cy Twombly with what seems to be a direct identification between the critic-poet Paz and her own critical role: “Framed by Baudelaire’s aesthetic of modernity, Paz’s ‘translation’ of Twombly represents a critical intervention in its own right—a poet-critic’s reading of a painter, one of many in the critical history of writings provoked by Twombly’s work. Crucially, it allows Twombly’s turn to poetry to be reseen as his response to the paradoxes of modern art at his midcentury historical moment” (241). This reseeing guides the arguments of the sequence of chapters of the second half of the book, wherein Jacobus accentuates the artist’s visual modernism in order to counter the claims that Twombly’s work was “transcendently poetic” (105). This process begins in the chapter on Twombly’s figure of Achilles, specifically in terms of the rupture between a mythic past and the framework of contemporary war and trauma, from the Vietnam War to the wars in Iraq, in works from Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) to the Bacchus cycle (2004–5). This break paves the way for an extended meditation on a series of mirrorings between poetry and painting that create as much historical distortion as timeless reflection. With chapter 5, “Romantic Twombly,” Jacobus, quoting T. J. Clark’s reading of Nicolas Poussin, confronts us with “the ‘implacable’ distance between the visual and the verbal” (159). This distance becomes part of a compelling analysis of Twombly’s work of the mid-1970s that refracts pastoral literacy conventions through “a form of elegy specifically associated with artistic modernity” (161). As Goethe’s color theory informs the focus on vision and phenomenology in the previous chapter’s realignment of Romanticism, Theodor W. Adorno’s essay on the lyric in the sixth chapter, “The Pastoral Stain,” transforms Theocritus, Virgil, and Edmund Spenser into an elegiac modernity. Readers of Jacobus’s earlier work (e.g. her 2005 book The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein) will expect at some point to encounter a careful psychoanalytic approach to Twombly, which she does eventually provide, in the seventh chapter, “Psyche: The Double Door.” Again resisting the “nostalgic classicizing impulse” (189), at the same time as invoking myths of Orpheus, Dionysus, and Narcissus, Jacobus looks to the mirror, not as an image of self-deception and destruction but of self-discovery. With the final chapter, “Twombly’s Lapse,” the figure of the artist scribbling in his library and his “beautiful lines of poetry” are replaced by “the artist’s perennial desire to find ways of inscribing the ‘sense’ of words within painting itself” (233). It is no coincidence that here, at the end, Jacobus sees the late work as enacting a return to Twombly’s prepoetic phase while also encompassing the lessons learned along the way: “Twombly’s late style recovers the very beginning of shape-making, with all its powers of evocation and invocation, while continuing to interrogate the inexhaustible relation of image and text—distinct, yet propped on one another” (232).

So, finally, to return to our opening question—“Where’s the poet?”—Jacobus’s answer is not simply “in paint,” but in the “reseeing” of the variety of processes Twombly uses to draw letters and images in a way that allows for no simple return to either. 

Richard Fletcher
Associate Professor, Department of Classics, Ohio State University