Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Thom Gunn's 'In Santa Maria del Popolo' and Caravaggio's Conversion on the Way to Damascus

This painting is Caravaggio's Conversion on the Way to Damascus, painted in 1601. It is in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome, and I saw it when I visited Rome with a friend three years ago.

By then, the painting had already held a great deal of personal significance for me for close to fifteen years. In my last year of high school, when I was sixteen years old, I took a course called Western Civilization, which (oddly enough) was based on the TV series and book Civilisation by British historian Kenneth Clark. I had never before taken a class which gave me such a good overview of the course of Western history over the last two thousand years, particularly in terms of religion, literature, art, architecture and music, and how they related to the events of history. I discovered Caravaggio and this painting through that class, as well as the paintings of JMW Turner, and Bernini's Apollo and Daphne statue, which we also saw in Rome. It was definitely a pivotal moment for me.

Seeing the painting in real life was a very moving experience. It is an incredibly powerful work, and it depicts an extremely crucial moment in one of my favourite Biblical books, the Acts of the Apostles. I'm always glad to not be disappointed when I see something like a work of art that I have waited to see for many years.

I have been thinking about the intersection between visual art and poetry: the places where they meet, or art inspired by poetry, or poetry inspired by art. I haven't reached many conclusions yet, except that the two mediums do two very different things and so it is hard to do one inspired by the other. Art is more immediate and visceral; poetry is subtle, cumulative and chronological - and even by saying that I am aware that I am simplifying far too much.

I tried to write a poem about this painting years ago, when I was about twenty. I doubt it was more than semi-successful. When I lived in Dublin and was discovering the wonderful art of Jack Yeats, W B Yeat's brother, I wrote a few poems inspired by his paintings, particularly For the Road and The Singing Horseman, both of which are in the National Gallery in Dublin. For the Road came out quite well, The Singing Horseman somewhat less so. I have a poster of his There Is No Night, which I used to go look at in the Hugh Lane Gallery. I love it but it has always bewildered me in some way I can't explain. I tried to write a poem about it - in fact, I tried on and off for at least a few years. I never really succeeded, which is still a source of frustration for me.

This is the poem 'In Santa Maria del Popolo', by Thom Gunn. Again, at this point of intersection between art and poetry, I am left uncertain. It is a rather analytical poem, more about Caravaggio's intentions and the poet's somewhat cynical questions, than about the painting itself, or the scene it depicts.



  1. Hey Clarissa, this is one of my favorite paintings and I enjoyed reading Gunn's poem, which was unknown to me.

    I also have a rush when I see paintings I love for the first time in real life. I can't imagine what's it going to be like when I see van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Betrothal" after studying it for so long.

    Plus, I'm a little jealous of the course you took!

    Now, about the poem you are trying to write: I don't know much about writing poetry, or writing anything for that matters, but I guess it's ok to keep struggling with it, because it will eventually come out the way you want it to (does that make any sense?)

    I'll go back to the trick or treaters now. ;)

    1. The Arnolfini Betrothal is indeed quite extraordinary - and I forget to look at it almost every time I go to the National Gallery...! There are paintings I love even more, I suppose...

      It's interesting to love a painting that you've seen in a book or in reproductions and then to be even more blown away by the reality. I had that experience with Burne-Jones's The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. When I saw Velasquez's Las Meninas in Madrid, I finally understood what all the fuss was about - I didn't really get it from having seen reproductions. I now consider it one of the greatest paintings I've ever seen.

      I haven't tried working on the There Is No Night poem for a very long time, but it may be time to try again...

  2. I haven't read much poetry about paintings, but I can see why it would be difficult. I think that it's because the emotions that paintings evoke are often abstract compared to the painting which may not always be abstract. You posted another poem, a while back, based on a lovely painting of a house, and a yard. Those two went together better than these two in this post. I think that as you say the poet was too analytical this time, asking too many questions and not concentrating on his own emotions or imagination.

    Maybe if you're having difficulty writing that poem you need to be more honest with yourself regarding what that painting evokes for you. Delve deeper into your subconscious... easy to say, I know, difficult to do.

    The Western Civ class was a huge inspiration for me too. I have kenneth Clarke's book, and the TV series was fabulous, even if just to say (but not only) that I distinctly remember pink floyd being played in one episode. I think that course is a big reason as to why I'm also in Europe.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      The entry you're thinking about was Pieter de Hooch's Courtyard in Delft and Derek Mahon's poem based on it. I think his poem is particularly remarkable and successful. It beautifully describes what the painting is doing, but also brings in his personal associations, very movingly.

      I got the impression that in the Thom Gunn poem he was raising questions about the real significance of Paul's spiritual experience, which also reflected his own questions and doubt...also, he brought in ideas about what Caravaggio was like and what his life might say about his paintings. I almost wonder if he brought too much in. It's a very interesting poem, but hard to warm up to.

      It's amazing that the Western Civ class was so inspirational for us! I'm really impressed that a high school class had that effect. I'd travelled in Europe already and seen a lot of art, but it opened things up in a new way for me, and introduced me to some new favourites. And I'd forgotten about Pink Floyd...oh boy, that makes me want to watch it again! ;)