ASPHODEL, THAT GREENY FLOWER

As an extended reflection on the artist’s life and family history, his marriage, and with several references to other artists, William Carlos Williams chose to include this great poem at the very end of his last collection, Pictures from Brueghel and other poems, published in 1962.  It is sometimes referred to as the world’s darkest love poem. 

In the past, whenever I read “Asphodel” I had always thought of it as a written piece of surrealism:  an author speaking to his contemporaries while walking through a strange landscape.  He often mentions his wife Flossie and their friend Charlie Demuth, as well as other artists such as Goya and Cezanne.  Today, when I re-read these lines, I associate them with more contemporary artists, especially Alfred Leslie and Laurie Gatlin. 

I used to see certain paintings by Leslie at Allen Frumkin’s galleries in both Chicago and New York.  I would often make a connection to certain other events or stories.  With this one in particular, “7:00 AM News” I would always go right back to Williams and his observations regarding dreaded poetry and the news.  

“It is difficult to get the news from poems….”[i]

Alfred Leslie
“7:00 AM News”
1976
Oil on canvas
84” x 60”
Allan Frumkin Gallery, New York

Then there is that strange visual juxtaposition of flowers actually blooming in hell.  Totally surreal and I cannot help but think of the artist’s post card series created by Laurie Gatlin during the mid 1990’s.

I have recently re-discovered several of Dr. Gatlin’s post cards from this series, especially the ones quoting Dr. Williams and the Asphodel.  When I asked her about them, this is what she had to say: 

“I love that poem. I like the way it meanders through memory, and balances both loss and sorrow and love.  I started that postcard project when I was living alone for the first time – I got married young and never lived on my own – I went from my parents house to my husband’s house, and then we had a house with children, a noisy house, and when I separated from him and moved into my own apartment, I was both happy with the ability to be alone and also terribly lonely.  It’s hard to make that adjustment, and the way I coped was to reach out with my postcards. . . . So there were a lot of things in that poem that resonated with me, and re-reading it again today, I am more struck by the sense of looking back over a life lived. . . .” 

Laurie Gatlin
“Flowers in Hell”
1995
5 1/2” x 3 1/2”
Collage and acrylic medium on post card
Private collection, Indianapolis

“One of the things that strikes me about William Carlos Williams is the sense of rhythm in his works – not structured with regular meter, but it reads to me very much like a metered poem.  There’s also the sense of distance in most of his poems – a sense of standing apart, and I think that appeals to me. Of Asphodel is actually pretty personal as it speaks about his relationship with his wife, but so much of it is also observational and distant.  I think I appreciated both of those aspects at the time as well – the meter and the sense of distance/personal relationship.”[ii]

I have always agreed with these observations from Laurie Gatlin and I share her understanding of Williams’ poem and its meanings.  However, during all of this time I missed a crucial detail of what Williams was trying to say.  Only recently have I discovered classical references to this greeny flower.  In fact, Homer mentions this in several passages of The Odyssey.  While exploring Hades at the direction of Circe in order to consult the prophet Tiresias, Odysseus had met and talked with Achilles’ ghost and Minos, as well as Agamemnon, his own dead mother Autolycus, and of course Tiresias hinself.  He had been sent by Circe in order to question his former crew regarding the events wherein he was lost at sea and these mates had been killed.  All the while, during this visit, he noticed that there were fields and meadows of asphodels growing there.   

“Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                  like a buttercup
                                    upon its branching stem—
save that it’s green and wooden—
                  I come, my sweet,
                                    to sing to you. 
We lived long together
                  a life filled,
                                    if you will,
with flowers.  So that
                  I was cheered
                                    when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
                  in hell.”[iii]

It turned out that Circe had instructed Odysseus two different times to travel to Hades for advice and guidance from his brothers in arms and from Tiresias. When he told Achilles that his son was actually still alive and had brought honor to his family, the ghost was overjoyed:    

“…after I told him this, Achilles’ ghost
took great swift-footed strides across the fields
of asphodel, delighted to have heard
about the glorious prowess of his son.”[iv]      

During these explorations Odysseus met and talked with many of the inhabitants of the underworld.  Whilst he was seeking to learn the routes out in order to return to Ithaca, his comrades in the underworld were seeking news of the outside world and they rushed to find any news that they could. 

“On open roads they crossed the Ocean stream,
went past the rock of Leucas and the gates
of Helius the Sun, and skittered through
the provinces of dreams, and soon arrived
in fields of asphodel, the home of shadows
who have been worn to weariness by life.”[v] 

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower
“Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                  I come, my sweet,
                                    to sing to you!
My heart rouses
                  thinking to bring you news
                                    of something
that concerns you
                  and concerns many men.  Look at
                                    what passes for the new. 
You will not find it there but in
                  despised poems. 
                                    It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                  yet men die miserably every day
                                    for lack
of what is found there.”[vi]

Laurie Gatlin
“It is difficult to get the news”
1995
5 1/2” x 3 1/2”
Collage and acrylic medium on post card
Private collection, Indianapolis

“What power has love but forgiveness? 
                  In other words
                                    by its intervention
what has been done
                  can be undone. 
                                    What good is it otherwise? 
Because of this
                  I have invoked the flower
                                    in that
frail as it is
                  after winter’s harshness
                                    it comes again
to delect us. 
                  Asphodel, the ancients believed,
                                    in hell’s despite
was such a flower.”[vii]


[i] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 161.

[ii] Gatlin, Laurie; in an artist’s statement and e-mail communication with this writer; 29 June 2020, 6:58 AM.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 153.

[iv] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; pp. 296-197, lines 538-541.

[v] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; p. 507, lines 11-16.

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 161-162.

[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 169-170.

THE CUTTING PROW

“Everything must
Be arranged
To a hair’s breadth
In thunderclap
Order.”
Antonin Artaud, 1947[i]

In conversations with many of his friends over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that:  “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language….”[ii]

It truly was a new world of signs and images that Matisse was creating.  Even as he was recovering from several surgeries late in life and confined to his bed or wheelchair, he kept working.  The philosopher Henri Focillon described this as a carving out of space or as the work of art creating its own space in the life of forms.  The Beat Generation poet Ed Sanders has also described this as ‘those scissors flashing in the world of forms’ or as a ‘cutting’ form.

As Artoud described this process it is a project dealing with arrangements to “a hair’s breadth.”  Later it would be suggested by Sanders that he wants it adjusted “This way and that, Minutitudinous!”

Or as Matisse himself has noted “The artist’s role is not to translate an observation, but to express the impact an object makes on his own nature:  the shock, the initial reaction.”[iii]

“A work of art is situated in space.  But it will not do to say it simply exists in space:  a work of art treats space according to its own needs, defines space and even creates such space as may be necessary to it.  The space of life is a known quantity to which life readily submits; the space of art is a plastic and changing material.”[iv]

THE CUTTING PROW:  FOR HENRI MATISSE

“The genius was 81
Fearful of blindness
Caught in a wheelchair
Staring at death

But the Angel of mercy
Gave him a year
To scissor some shapes
To soothe the scythe

And shriek! shriek!
Became
swawk! swawk!
The peace of
Scissors.

prow1
Helene Adant
“Matisse at work in his studio in Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

There was something besides
The inexpressible

Thrill

Of cutting a beautiful shape—-
For

Each thing had a ‘sign’
Each thing had a ‘symbol’
Each thing had a cutting form

-swawk swawkk___
to scissor seize.

‘One must study an object a long time,’
the genius said,
‘to know what its sign is.’

The scissors were his scepter
The cutting
Was as the prow of a barque
To sail him away.
There’s a photograph
which shows him sitting in his wheelchair
bare foot touching the floor
drawing the crisscross steel
a shape in the gouache

His helper sits near him
Till he hands her the form
To pin to the wall

prow2
Helene Adant
“Paule Martin and Matisse in the Hotel Regina, Nice”
B&W Photograph
1952
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

He points with a stick
How he wants it adjusted
This way and that,
Minutitudinous

The last blue iris blooms at
The top of its stalk
Scissors/scepter
Cutting prow

(sung)

Ah, keep those scissors flashing in the
World of Forms, Henri Matisse

The cutting of the scissors
Was the prow of a boat
To take him away
The last blue iris
Blooms at the top
On a warm spring day

prow3
Helene Adant
“Matisse in Vence with scissors and gouache cut-outs”
1947-1948
B&W Photograph
Cameraphoto, Venice

Ah, keep those scissors flashing
In the World of Forms, Henri Matisse

Sitting in a wheelchair
Bare feet touching the floor
Angel of Mercy
Pushed him over Next to Plato’s door

Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow
Scissor scepter cutting prow

ahh
swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk

ahh swawk swawk.”[v]


[i] Artaud, Antonin, (Clayton Eshleman, translator); To Have Done with the Judgement of God; Black Sparrow Press; Los Angeles; 1975. p. 1.

[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, London; 1995; p. 150.

[iii] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 355.

[iv] Focillon, Henri; The Life of Forms in Art; Zone Books; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.

[v] Sanders, Ed; “The Cutting Prow,” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; pp. 151-153.

THE BLUE NUDE!

On this date in history, 31 December 1869, Henri Emile Benoit Matisse was born.  Although he studied for and passed the law examination in 1888, it was following an attack of appendicitis in 1889 that is mother gave him a set of paints during his recovery.  By 1891 he had decided to abandon his law career and to study painting.  In Paris he first began studies with Adolphe Bouguereau, but left the Academie Julian in frustration and ended up in the class of Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Moreau’s studio encouraged expression and filled the needs of many young artists, including Albert Marquet, Georges Roualt, Henri Manquin, Jules Flandrin, and Charles Camoin.  It is here that Matisse began a life long process of experimentation and invention.  By 1905 he and his compatriots Maurice Vlaminck and Andre Derain were accused of being ‘wild beasts’ and during the teens his experimentation was debated on whether it was too cubist, or not cubist enough.  “The French Window” and the “View of Notre Dame” both from 1914 proved to be pushes into abstraction and invention completely different from what anyone else was doing at that time and for years to come.

Later during the era between World War I and World War II, Matisse would explore pattern space and abstraction through the use of textiles and architecture, and he would employ drawing and painting in this search for certain signs, which were abstracted from the things surrounding him in the studio.

In 1941 an illness and cancer surgery resulted in damaged abdominal muscles confining him to either his bed or wheel chair.  When others would have been happy to just repeat and imitate themselves, he invented one last means of working:  paper cut-outs that literally allowed him to carve with scissors and paper in space.  The series of “Acrobats” and “Blue Nudes” were the ultimate results of these experiments.

blue1
Henri Matisse
“Blue Nude III”
1952
Guache, paper collage
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee National d’Art Moderne,
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

The Blue Woman

“She dipped her hand in the sea.
It turned blue.
That pleased her.
She fell full-length into the sea.
She turned blue.
Blue in voice and silence.
The blue woman,
Many admired her
No-one loved her.”

Yannis Ritsos, 1966[i]

Finally, in a collection of writings titled “Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century” the poet Ed Sanders paid tribute to Matisse and his paper cut-outs.  Sanders wrote:

“He couldn’t paint, he couldn’t sculpt.  He was confined to a wheelchair, and gripped with timor mortis.  From his bed at night he’d draw on the ceiling with a long stick with crayon attached.  Yet somehow he adjusted his creativity, finding a new mix of the muses, so that from the spring of 1952 through the spring of ’53, in his final creative months, Henri Matisse was able to produce some of the finest art of the century—works such as The Swimming Pool, Large Decoration with Masks, The Negress, Memory of Oceania, Women and Monkeys, and the smaller Blue Nude series.  He thought he could scissor the essence of a thing, it’s ‘sign’ as he termed it, as if he had vision in Plato’s world of Forms.”[ii]


[i] Berggruen, Olivier, and Max Hollein; Henri Matisse:  Drawing with Scissors; Prestel; Munich, Berlin, London and New York; 2006; p. 151.

[ii] Sanders, Ed; “Introduction to The Cutting Prow;” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; p. 202.