Self-portraits in painting and poetry

IMG_0998The painting on my home page is one I did when I was a senior at Middlebury College. I was doing a series of small paintings of unoccupied park benches. I was on my second or third sitting of this bench, which faces the mountains to the west of campus. When I arrived at my perch, I was annoyed to find another student painter had inserted herself between me and my vista. I decided to paint her in to my composition. Because she had the same brown pony tail and blue sweatshirt as I, everyone assumed the painting was a self-portrait. And that’s what it became.

The portrait is both me and not me, which is really what any self-portrait is. A self-portrait depicts you as someone else—someone outside your head and body, who exists on canvas, paper, or, in my case, particle board. When you look at painter’s self-portrait, you never delude yourself into think you’re actually looking at the artist himself—not even when you’re looking at a self-portrait by Rembrandt, whose flesh tones pulse with blood and whose eyes follow your gaze. What’s so astonishing about Rembrandt’s self-portraits is that, for all their life-likeness, you can never forget that you’re looking at paint, paint that has been artfully manipulated to create an illusion of proximity and personhood.

Self-portraiture in poetry is a different story. When you read a poem, it’s easy to feel like you’re reading the poet’s mind. The lyric “I” creates the illusion that you’re having an intimate encounter with the poet, who is expressing her innermost thoughts and emotions. It feels like you’re in touch with the poet herself. Our confusion is registered in the different articles we use to refer to poems and paintings: when we read a poem, we say, “that’s T. S. Eliot,” as if the poem were the poet, whereas when we see a painting, we say, “that’s a Rembrandt,” acknowledging the work as a related but separate entity.

Poetry readers should take a lesson from painting. Recognize that when you read a poem by T. S. Eliot, you’re no more in touch with Eliot himself than you are face-t0-face with Rembrandt when you look at his self-portrait. When you read a poem written in the first person, you’re not reading the poet’s mind, you’re reading words, words that have been artfully manipulated to create an illusion of intimacy and personhood. Yes, the illusion bears a resemblance to the real person. But the self-portrait is not the person; it’s an artful composition.

In the same way, everything I write about myself on this blog is a form of self-portraiture. Squint carefully as you read and you can probably pick out the brush strokes.


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