Bill Knott, “Painting vs. Poetry”

How do fantasy and reality relate? I know I leap from fantasy to fantasy without having the slightest clue about what I wanted in the first place.

Knott’s little poem brings us back to the older discussion. Whereas our subordination to fantasy might involve discussing addiction to love or anger at the smallest things, an older line of thinking wondered about the power of imagination itself. Our minds have an image-making faculty, and from that faculty, we don’t just feel or act, we create.

Knott starts with a bold claim: Painting is a person placed between the light and a canvas so that their shadow is cast on the canvas. There’s something like the shape of you on the canvas when a painting is made. Not merely fragments of you, but a semblance of a whole. He extends this claim into one about poetry:

Painting vs. Poetry (from
Bill Knott

Painting is a person placed
between the light and a
canvas so that their shadow
is cast on the canvas and
then the person signs their
name on it whereas poetry
is the shadow writing its
name upon the person.

You might argue that his notion of painting is too strong. I don’t know how possible it is for me to see something representing the whole artist when I view art. I don’t know that any productive discussion can result from my saying, say, that Mondrian “is” Composition with Red Blue and Yellow.

However, Knott focuses less on the product and more on making itself. The painting is made by the painter being between the light and the canvas. A shadow, then, holds within it the efforts constituting craft and the result of craft. Saying a painter signs this makes more sense upon this consideration. Efforts are joined to create a result, an identity emerges, but the actual interaction of effort and craft remains shadowy. Fine art is a process which should maximize difference, mirror the difficulty of human being in the world.

So what is poetry? Somewhat surprisingly, for a poem titled “Painting vs. Poetry,” painting is presented as prerequisite for poetry. Poetry is the shadow writing its name on the person. There’s still a canvas with a shadow upon it. Effort and result and their complex togetherness all sign their name upon you. A poem or painting taken as a poem are the shadow speaking, a part resembling a whole, reaching, wondering how it relates to the whole of an individual.

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