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

By Timothy Cahill Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Timothy Cahill Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 Andre 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. …

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