new zealand electronic poetry centre

k a   m a t e   k a   o r a  

a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics


1,000 Words or a Picture:Could Poetry be a Contemporary Art? 


Writing a poem about a picture depicting someone else’s moment/s on a journey later written about, one of which has been pictured in a painting by another in another century, was my challenge. The new moment isn’t pictorial as such, but a white canvas with three words scribbled seemingly fast on it, that gives the isomorphic sense of the speed and excitement of the take-off moment of travel. This to me is the poem in itself. I saw it too in the tumbled mass of images my head had from the scribbled words “Goethe in Italy” when I walked around the Kunsthaus Art Gallery in Zürich and Cy Twombly’s painting (1) speedily leapt in reverse image which my brain reversed back for me to see it, into my un-expecting eyes. As a thought, the phrase was a poem complete. It gave me such a kick, I wanted to translate the mass into words that would both bring Tischbein’s image of Goethe to mind as well as Andy Warhol’s psychedelic print of part of Tischbein’s picture i.e. of Goethe’s head and travelling hat (not to mention subliminal images of Marilyn Monroe and the Campbell’s soup can hovering) and also at the same time to excise it, because in Twombly’s new image, they weren’t there, but were very possibly in many a viewer’s mind. I wanted also to make a picture of the colour and shapes I knew of as being Italy-to-me-while-journeying, as well as to show in words as unpainted as possible, the way it felt to me the painter had seen or painted his picture, because of the roughness, rawness, readiness and speed of travel over the canvas of his strokes, which also seemed part of the isomorphs that made up the poem.

Besides, I wanted to put into my poem three words from the third sentence (2) of Goethe’s original German rendition of his Italian Journey because these are so redolent of the furniture of travel of the time and somehow untranslatable. A Mantelsack is a cloak bag and a Dachsranzen is a badger-fur-lined leather travel bag, both precursors of the contemporary nylon or leather coat sack and packsack, while a Postchaise is, of course, a fast travelling carriage. At this moment in his report of 3rd September 1786, Goethe does not mention the travelling hat which is conceived by Tischbein, and then again by Warhol, and which I picture we always picture Goethe as wearing, whether he did or not. In the first sentence of Italienische Reise, Goethe tells us he got up at three in the morning in Karlsbad just six days after his birthday to slip away before anyone could catch him, as they might have used post-party celebrations-in-mind as an excuse to hold him back. His sense of urgency, delight, excitement, wonder, relief at being secretly away at last was my background reading recalled by memory the split-second I saw Twombly’s words in white which stopped me in my tracks; then, looking further around the gallery walls, I saw Twombly had painted a series of pictures that might be, for example, the bushes flashing by or a mountain seen out of the corner of the Postchaise as Goethe’s carriage dashed deep and deeper into Italy from Zwota on the beautiful day that revealed itself as the mist lifted, or on those following it. Two multi-part paintings painted at Bassano in 1978 inspired by Goethe’s travel memoir.

Really to get the picture, you’d better go to the Kunsthaus in Zürich and look at Twombly’s series to see what I mean and see whether it strikes you the way it does me. I’d be fascinated to know how you picture it all. If it helps to while away your journey, here’s the poem I wrote down in one go after I’d got back from a trip from Frankfurt (Goethe’s birthplace) to Florence in 2008, the first time I’d revisited Italy for years. I couldn’t wait to get (into the Postchaise  and) there either.

'Goethe in Italy'
after Cy Twombly’s painting series “Goethe in Italy” (1978), Kunsthaus, Zürich

No trace of Tischbein's too long left leg
cloak, travelling hat
nor the Ozymandias
ruins sands

no image of J.W.
or his sketches
or the fabled 'Italienische Reise'

On a painted white postcard shape
enlarged to a wall canvas
over-painted & scrubbed
rubbed out & re-scribbled in blue
and in black re-written over-painted
in white & scribbled again


(equally fabled?)
written fast in a sure
unkempt hand & almost re-erased.

You jump seeing it
does it say what it says

your mind is cypresses & tall
narrow houses with small windows
shutters, soft cream & brown
campaniles, hills & the light
of spreading cedars like
the Buddha could've sat under
(if not a Bodhi)
keeping cool in illumination.

Cy paints earth browns & greens
in a switch of brush-like
speedy bush – he leaves white shapes
right where you want him to
for storms & your eyes to breathe
his thrill at the words
you're old friends meeting
for the first time.

Mantelsack and Dachsranzen
thrown into a Postchaise
you've taken off
with them both
all the way south.

Note: J.H.W Tischbein’s portrait “Goethe in der römischen Campagna” (1786-1787) is in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main



  1. Goethe in Italy. Two multi-part paintings by Cy Twombly, Bassano, 1978. Kunsthaus, Zürich.
  2. “Ich warf mich ganz allein, nur einen Mantelsack und Dachsranzen aufpackend, in eine Postchaise und gelangte halb nach acht Uhr nach Zwota, an einem schönen stillen Nebelmorgen.” Eintrag vom 3 September 1786, Italienische Reise. J.W. von Goethe. Insel Verlag,  Frankfurt am Main, 1976. “Quite alone I threw myself, my cloak bag and packsack into a carriage and by half-past eight had reached Zwota on a beautiful, still and misty morning.” Entry for 3 September 1786, Italian Journey. J. W. von Goethe (my translation).


Jan Kemp  


Last updated 25 May, 2009