Unheard melodies

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival  takes over PEM this weekend and I’m particularly excited about the workshops which explore the intersection of art and poetry. In one, the artist Yetti Frenkel displays her process for making mosaics to illustrate poetry, and then she asks participants to make your own colorful artwork. The other has participants create art from lines of poetry. Both these programs offer poets and artists the opportunity to experience a hybrid art and poetry exchange.

Though they are lumped together as arts, writing poetry and being a visual artist seems to require very different ways of thinking. That’s why both workshops will stretch the imaginative abilities of both poets and artists. I’m ready for the stretch.

TM8470 Diva 20×30 oil on panel by Teri Malo | http://terimalo.wordpress.com/

TM8470 Diva 20×30 oil on panel by Teri Malo | http://terimalo.wordpress.com/

I have a friend, Teri Malo, who is a visual artist. But she also writes poetry. Her recent Newbury Street show featured paintings of ponds with the focus on water as it reflects the flora on shore as well as elements in and of the water such as light, ripples, half submerged leaves, duckweed, marsh grass, sediment, etc. If you look at her work one moment it seems to be an example of almost photographic realism but the next moment you’re lost in the layers within that water, and you are seeing a deeply abstract work. In other words, her paintings are incredibly complex.

You would never describe her poems as simple, but, first of all, I seldom remember seeing one about nature, which is always the subject of her paintings. Her poems tend to be short, often philosophical but usually with a light or ironic touch. It’s hard to imagine that the ponds and the poetry come from the same mind, but I’ve heard she’s not unique. I recently talked to another poet who is taking painting classes. She found it hard to express how the process of creation in both is different, but she swears it is.

Watching both my friends, I think trying my hand at something visual might be just the zing I need for my imagination. When I think about it, poets often take visual art as their subject. I’m sure you recognize these lines from John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn:

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

John Keats | http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-keats

John Keats | http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-keats

But did you know they are from an ephrastic poem –- a work that describes another art form? There’s a relief on the Grecian urn that includes a rural scene and a young girl chased by a young man – or is he a god?  Keats isn’t sure. To enhance the revelry of the scene a youth is playing a pipe beneath a tree. In Keats’s poem they are all forever young, always almost attaining their desires but forever in expectation, caught in a moment of eternal ecstasy. And the music is never there and never not there. Instead of the actual music, Keats prefers the “unheard melodies” that soar in his imagination.

Whoa! The artist is reveling in the celebration of an Arcadian village, and the poet sees how a moment is eternally preserved. Now those aren’t diametrically opposite points-of-view, but they are really different.

Whether you are a poet or an artist, you might want to try the sister art and see what it does for your imagination. Which means you should come to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival!

Go here for a complete schedule and to PEM’s site for a schedule of related family programming.

J. MaloneJacquelyn Malone has been the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in poetry. She is the writer/editor for masspoetry.org.


  1. Claire Keyes says:

    I loved seeing the Terri Malo painting. Terrific.

  2. Evelyn McKay says:

    Great article Jackie! It makes sense that visual artists and poets have so much in common. How about adding musicians to the mix? All three have something to express, just different ways of doing so.

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