The Terpsichorean Poem

Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 63)


To modern ears, the resonating metaphor in the phrase “the orchestration of the arts” is exclusively musical, but when we remember that “orchestra” derives from orcheisthai, the ancient Greek verb meaning “to dance,” we realize that to orchestrate the arts is also to invoke the Muse of dance, Terpsichore. Terpsichore’s central role in the coordinated interplay of human creative activity has never flagged, but her continuing relation to her sister Erato, the Muse of lyric poetry, has largely been ignored by scholars, philosophers, and critics. The phrase “the sister arts,” for example, has historically been used to refer only to the arts of poetry and painting. Horace’s memorable locution, ut pictura poesis (as in painting, so in poetry), has often been cited and discussed at length, as has a famous remark attributed by Plutarch to Simonides of Ceos, that poetry is “a speaking picture” and painting “a silent [or mute] poem.”1 Rarely cited or examined, however, are the many comparable statements of creative exchange between poetry and dance, ranging from the common practice of calling something graceful “poetry in motion” to the pronouncements of artists, such as Mallarmé’s description of dance as a poem “freed of all the apparatus of writing”2 or Gordon Craig’s assertion that “dance [is] the poetry of action.”3 Inverting the metaphor from “dance is a poem” to “a poem is a dance,” Ezra Pound defined the ideational (as opposed to the musical or visual) proclivities of the poetic mind as “the dance of the intellect among words,”4 and Paul Valéry proposed that a poem, when recited, is “a verbal dance.”5 What all these formulations suggest is the existence of fundamental, life-affirming synergies between poetry and dance. Their multiple correlations deserve sustained attention beyond the scope of an introductory paper. A good place to begin, however, is with what should be an obvious parallel: ekphrastic poems (that is, poems that take visual works of art as their subject matter) have their counterpart in poems that take dance as their subject matter. For want of an existing term, I will call such poems “terpsichorean.” Through close readings of selected terpsichorean poems, we may consider three ways in which the poetic art attempts to capture the fullness of life made manifest in the art of dance.


Ballet Dancer Actual Dance Physical Beauty Lyric Poetry Creative Exchange 
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Massachusetts College of ArtBostonUSA

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