The poetic side of genius

Pablo Picasso's writing - done in the raw, unpunctuated style of the Surrealists - receives its first major translation into English in a new volume of poetry.

Near the end of his life, Pablo Picasso predicted to a friend he would be remembered as a "Spanish poet who dabbled in painting, drawing, and sculpture." The most famous artist of the 20th century was certainly joking. Picasso (1881-1973) knew he would be forever identified as the figure who rejected Renaissance traditions, ushering in a complex new relationship of the artist to the visible world and the audience.

The comment is meaningful, for it provides a glimpse into a lesser-known side of the protean master. From 1935, when he was 54 years old, until 1959, Picasso devoted himself to a body of writing that was boldly and consciously poetic.

"I abandon sculpture, engraving and painting," he wrote to Spanish poet and boyhood friend Jaime Sabartes in 1936, "to dedicate myself entirely to song." The result was a series of notebooks, sketchbooks, journals, even napkins filled with prose poems that, like his paintings, are dense in imagery, relentlessly energetic, and frequently enigmatic.

Now the poems are available in English for the first time with the publication of a comprehensive volume of Picasso's writings, "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems." Coeditors Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris collected the writings from the original Spanish and French.

Picasso's literary output has been little more than a footnote to public awareness of his artistic contribution, but "it's the work of an accomplished poet," says Mr. Rothenberg. "It was not trivial work. It's part of the history of experimental poetry in the 20th century."

The painter began writing seriously at a time in his life when a divorce impelled him to take a break from painting. Rothenberg explains in the book's preface that through 1935 and 1936, Picasso largely ignored paint and canvas and immersed himself in written expression. Afterward, over more than two decades, he often returned to writing, producing three plays in addition to the 300-plus texts in "Burial."

"He didn't feel like painting, but the creative rush was still coming through, so he wrote,'' says Mr. Joris. "It became one of the ways he expressed that energy."

The writings are unlikely to remake Picasso's image into that of a poet, at least in the conventional sense. His poems are not deliberate constructions of meaning, but rather rippling Surrealist wordplay. They could just as well be called literary paintings. They unleash a dazzling, allusive torrent of sensory description and dreamlike action in such images as "wings of forgotten colors," "the sundrop falling on the tip of the knife," and "white blue white yellow and rose white of an apple green." Nearly all the writings were created as prose blocks, rarely in traditional verse lines, and dated rather than titled.

Picasso wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style, without punctuation or capitalization, following the counsel of poet André Breton in his 1924 "First Surrealist Manifesto," to "write quickly with no preconceived subject." The aim, for Breton and Picasso, was to bypass literal meaning and sweep the unconscious for unexpected riches of expression. A Picasso entry dated May 4, 1935, begins, "All the shredded shadows peel off the bodies with haste of the start of a journey and faithful to their appointment with light...."

"It's a kind of writing at top speed. The pencil does not leave the paper," explains Joris. Picasso, he ventures, may be "the most accomplished Surrealist poet. In terms of going for the absolute Surrealist process of breaking all syntactical barriers and eliminating the [intellectual] policeman who prevents you from saying things."

Surrealist writings provide insight into Picasso's art, art scholar and curator Richard Kendall observes.

"They are of interest," he explains. "Not frivolous or foolish. A lot of people don't realize how engaged Picasso became with Surrealism, what a big part the tormented, the macabre, the dreamlike, the fantastical played in his work. His writing is of a piece with that."

Picasso provided art for Surrealist journals, and was close friends with writers and artists associated with the movement. "The Surrealist strand is always there, but it comes through in the 1930s," Mr. Kendall says. He cites Picasso's great antiwar painting "Guernica" as "the picture of a nightmare." The poetry "brings something to our understanding of 'Guernica.' "

Rothenberg and Joris, who collaborated on the book from their respective homes near San Diego, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., are best known for "Poems of the Millennium," a 1,600-page, two-volume anthology of avant-garde, alternative, and postmodern poetry. It was while compiling that project that the two men, both accomplished poets in their own right, first published Picasso.

The present collection was translated by Joris, Rothenberg, and more than a dozen contributing poets from a 1989 French volume, "Picasso: Writings." While both editors hope publication of the English version will be regarded as a literary event, they are aware that Picasso's seminal importance as a painter is the main interest.

"It's more likely to be an event for artists and art historians," says Rothenberg. "It's hard to break through those boundaries."

Kendall agrees. "We're interested in almost everything Picasso did. If he had not been an extraordinary artist, his writings might then have disappeared. They're a minor aspect of his extraordinary career."

Joris, for his part, argues that the writing stands on its own merit. "These are live poems. These are not museum pieces," he says. "They may be more alive at this point, fresher - they have not been framed, like the paintings, by tons of critical discourse."

While their relative merit may be debated, the writings nevertheless give voice to Picasso's intent as an artist. Whether as pictures or words, his art aimed for the same effect. "Everything you find in these poems," he insisted, "you can also find in my paintings. So many painters have forgotten poetry ... and it's the most important thing."


orange blossom jasmine cabinet perfumed with pine scent little sugar cube stuck sentry-like on point of bayonet drawn from his gaze and bleeding honey from his fingers on the dove's wings burning at lake bottom in the skillet of his eyes shows up exactly at the happy hour with its flower needle pin prick poised to touch the sea's snout blue bull wingèd incandescent spread out at the ocean's rim

- Pablo Picasso

2 July 38

drop by
pale blue
the claws of
green almond
on the rose

- Pablo Picasso

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