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Michael Volpicelli: Painter or Poet?
I’m not going to pretend that I’m not an enormous admirer of the art of Michael Volpicelli. I am; I freely admit it. His portraits are not so unique in as much as they are wholly visual representations of the people they portray, but his technique for doing so is mind-boggling. But a portrait is not restricted in any way to a single art form. There are not just paintings, but also novels, poems, short stories, musical compositions, dance choreographs that are also portraits, in as much as they are all artist renderings of some component or components of a person. The other day I told Mr. Volpicelli that I hold—speaking as a poet first, and as an art educator and aficionado second—that I hold his work as high as I would Shakespeare or Beethoven, and that got me to thinking about his work, that, in the case of Shakespeare, perhaps I was more right than I realized because, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, a poem can be used as much to make a picture as a painting can.
I hold up Mr. Volpicelli’s latest work as a prime example. It is a portrait of a young lady, perhaps 10 years of age, but the image is made up entirely of words. All the values of light and dark are still words but of varying density of writing, and I present it to you. How is this not a poem?
Click image to see larger view and caption.
In order to validate my question, let me tell you something of myself: I have been teaching literature, and especially poetry, for more that 25 years. I am, myself, a published poet with two collections currently on the market. In addition to this part of my background, however, there is also a pictorial influence. I was also born into a rich artistic heritage, a milieu of artistic people and positions all around me. My maternal grandmother’s auntie was an artist, quite famous for her day: Eleanor Douglas, known at one time as “the finest female landscape painter of her day” and as “the painter of Trees.” For my article on her, please follow the link here:
In addition to Douglas, though, I am also indirectly related to Grant Wood, the famous painter of The American Gothic. There were other influences, but rest assured, I have loved and studied art virtually all my life. My experience in the world of classical music is no less important to my life, but not so much to this article, so I shall leave that part of my artistic life here. So when I ask if the portraits of Michael Volpicelli are perhaps not poems, it is from the perspective of one who knows what it is he is asking. Let’s look at some examples of definite poems to explore this question in more detail.
Early in the 20th century, E. E. Cummings, then a university student, was criticized for creating a poem that, according to his professor, appealed more to the eye than to the ear. The untitled poem often referred to as “N,” after it’s first line, is a simple but delightful sentence: “Nothing can surpass the mystery of silence.” Cummings, however, arranges this idea into alternating one- and three-line stanzas that serve little purpose but to break each word up into brilliantly arranged fragments, then he uses patterns of alternating upper- and lower-case letters to create a pattern that contribute nothing to the meaning of the poem except to make the reader act out the thought that is expressed in the poem.
The professor’s criticism, however, begs the question, “so what if it appeals more to the eye than to the ear?” Is it, perhaps, encroaching on the domain of pictorial art, perhaps? If so why is that wrong? If a poem is supposed to appeal to the ears, then isn’t it also infringing on the demesne of music? How is that more right than appealing to the eye? I know of no law giver, religious or governmental, who has proclaimed borders between the arts in such a way as to not blur them entirely. After all, how much difference is there between a painted, low-relief sculpture, say, on a frieze of an ancient sepulchre, and a painting with pigment applied so richly that it gives physical texture, even adding light and shadow created by sources of light in our own space, rather than light that is created within the art of the painting itself? If these lines can be blurred, then why not one that breaches two different forms of art altogether: literary and pictorial? Is it more wrong, or is it, perhaps, even more ingenious to do so?
And for those literary people who think that creating “picture poems” or “concrete poems” is something “new fangled,” let me remind you that poet, George Herbert (1593-1633) created his own brand of these “new fangled” things, and he was praised for them. The only difference is that his were not free-verse, and the merits of free verse poetry are not something to discuss in this forum, at least not now.
Richard Kostelanetz wrote a successive set of Tributes to Henry Ford, which are just as much tributes to the automobile and to modern society. Their profundity comes from the fact that they are concrete poems. Were they to say more they would express much less. He uses letters rather than words, and it is the pattern that creates the expression, not the words. That is, it is the appeal to they eye in these poems that makes their application so broad and rich, and yet, to deny that they are poems is to raise the question, “What else could they possibly be?”
This brings us nicely to Dorthi Charles’s 1971 “Concrete Cat” created when she was only 8 years old, and which is studied still in university text books and one of the finest concrete poems ever written. This poem uses words to paint a picture. Sound familiar? She, like Cummings before her, plays with the capital letters, but in this case, she adds depth to her picture. The “a” in “ear” is capital to give the point to both ears. The “y” in “eye” is also capitalized in order to show the oblong pupil of the feline eye. The “u” in “mouth” is capitalized to illustrate a tongue perhaps licking from the dish right before it.
While the stripes of the cat may seem trivial, the rather brilliant addition of the “s” in the middle stripe actually changes the meaning. The “s” doesn’t come at the beginning of “stripe,” but it does come at the end of “tripes” a reference to a cow’s second stomach, to food and to faeces, pointing us to the middle of the body directly under the tail and right above the litter box. I remind you that this poem was written by an 8-year-old girl, and let us not forget the dead mouse that Dorthi includes somewhere behind the cat’s litter box.
And this brings us back to Michael Volpicelli. Like little Dorthi Charles, he uses words as brush strokes to present a portrait. The words he uses are all in some way related to the subject of his art, like the words of Charles’ “Concrete Cat.” The words he uses are strategically placed so as to bring out the light and shadow of the portrait, and, while I have yet to do so, I’m willing to bet there is some depth of literary meaning in the placement of the words as well. Two words near each other may rhyme or they may create an oxymoron or they may create a paradox or they may work together to describe a word beneath the two. I have yet to look into such things, but I would not put it past Mr. Volpicelli to do so.
So then, which is it? Is the work of Michael Volpicelli pictorial or literary? Speaking as a poet, a literature teacher, and an art educator, writer and promoter, I am here to tell you that the answer is “yes.” The art of Michael Volpicelli has not so much blurred the lines between literary and pictorial art as it has served to unify the two types of art by completing the bridge between the two art forms, and that places Volpicelli in a unique position. He is an ambassador of art, a dignitary of design who single handedly completed the treaty between two warring artistic factions. To hang a Volpicelli portrait in your home is to recite a living being, to breathe new life into a cherished loved one. His work is that which demands and deserves our admiration and applause.
Below are some more “picture poems” and other works of Michael Volpicelli for you to enjoy.