Answering Back

One major inspiration of art and writing is… art and writing. I'm reading a brilliant anthology, creative intelligence sunny windowedited by Carol Ann Duffy, called Answering Back, with a simple, delightful concept: a living poet chooses a poem from the past that has touched them and writes a new poem in response.

It's a beautiful collection of calls and replies, echos and illuminations across centuries — and gives a vivid sense of how, through writing, language and human connection transcend time and place.

Here's a poem about art by WH Auden, chosen by Billy Collins and, below, Collins's reply (which includes, in stanza 2, a lesson on the importance of the telling detail in fine art.)


Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing in into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

WH Auden.

Musee des Beaux Arts Revisited

As far as mental anguish goes,
the old painters were no fools.
They understood how the mind
the freakiest dungeon in the castle,
can effortlessly imagine a crab with the face of a priest
or an end table complete with genitals.

And they knew that the truly monstrous
lies not so much in the wildly shocking,
a skeleton spinning a wheel of fire, say,
but in the small prosaic touch
added to a tableau of the hellish,
the detail at the heart of the horrid.

In Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony
for instance, how it is not so much
the boar-faced man in the pea-green dress
that frightens, but the white mandolin he carries,
not the hooded corpse in a basket
but the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch;

how what must have driven St. Anthony
to the mossy brink of despair
was not the big, angry looking fish
in the central panel,
the one with the two mouse-like creatures
conferring on its tail,
but rather what the fish is wearing:
a kind of pale orange officer's cape
and, over that,
a metal body-helmet secured by silvery wires,
a sensible buckled chin strap,
and, yes, the ultimate test of faith –
a tiny sword that hangs from the thing,
that nightmare carp,
secure in its brown leather scabbard.

Billy Collins.

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