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Slippery Subjects: Thoughts on the Occasion of Ashbery and Koch’s “Death Paints a Picture”

  • Ellen Levy
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Part of the Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics book series (MPCC)

Abstract

John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch began writing poems together in the early 1950s, but these collaborative productions remained unpublished until 1958, when their “Death Paints a Picture” appeared in a special section of ArtNews titled “Poets on Painting.” The subject of this poem—insofar as it can be said to have a subject—would seem to be statues and their subject matter:

The statue of Balenciaga was dripping onto other statues: Among those it dripped on was the statue of Popeye And the statue of President Hoover, who was himself a statue, And the statue of Swee’Pea, which lay at the foot of the statue of Popeye. (“Death” 24)

So it begins, and goes on in this way for another 40 lines, all but the last of which contain at least one capitalized name and the word “statue.” “Death Paints a Picture” thus fits neatly into the series of a dozen or so other poetic collaborations by Ashbery and Koch that follow “amusing intricate rules” (as Koch once termed them) of the poets’ own devising, while at the same time also managing to fit, if only just, under the “poets on painting” rubric imposed upon them on this occasion by ArtNews (qtd. in Lehman 84).

Keywords

Subject Matter Artistic Medium Individual Artist Locus Solus Romantic Couple 
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© Mark Silverberg 2013

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  • Ellen Levy

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