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Poetry and Art: Ian House introduces poems inspired by Rembrandt, Rodin and Kandinsky

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

Sometimes I have doubts about the propriety of ekphrastic poems. The artist has done the work: selected or imagined a slice of the world, responded to it in her own way. The danger is that the poet will succumb to being a parasite who describes the work (at length, to assist the reader) before tying the ribbon with his dependent response. Over the years I have become inclined to use familiar or typical art works so that some knowledge can be assumed in readers and I can concentrate on recording the experience and feeling of standing before the work.

Ian House, March 2022


A Life

A film flows by. Watch frame-by-frame,
the illusion of a whole is gone.
Peacock, patriarch and potentate,
stricken burgher and serene artist,
each portrait reels us in, holds us fast
for thirty minutes to its truth,
a truth affirmed by the unavoidable nose,
the nose he will not gloss over, the pole
round which the masks and costumes whirl,
the rock round which the fluent selves disperse
and form the delta of his life.
Labile himself, he grips us.
Fixed, gives us the freedom to roam.


There’s an early painting where he pops up
as a grinning jackanapes, and in an etching
he’s a snarling, wild-haired Hamlet,
styles he’s trying out and masks he’s trying on.
By mid-career he’s looked at himself so long,
so inquiringly, so intently looking at me

that I flinch.
then face up to him,
fling the challenge back,
probe and rummage him,
and still he bears down,
demands to know,
and I turn in, go deep,
mine and defend myself.
We back-and-forth like this
till I’m barely aware who’s who
and it’s intolerable
and I tear myself from him,
diminished, enriched.

Has Been

When Rembrandt took one last look in the mirror,
he saw an old guy with uncombed grey hair,
a puffy face, that nose, dead eyes.
It seems a final honesty. All those years
had he painted not what he saw but what he saw
as what he felt he was or, more dishonest still,
what he felt he was as what he saw? At last
he closes the dressing-up box,
shows what’s there beyond apparent artifice,
a man dissolving, passing out of life.

The old master wasn’t an Old Master
but a bankrupt, sick, unvarnished failure.

No: ‘Rembrandt’ names the works and all his selves.

In Amsterdam, one January too bitter for tourists, I sat on my own for thirty minutes in a room full of Rembrandts. At Kenwood once I sat for thirty minutes facing the great late self-portrait. In life we rarely have the opportunity to look so closely and for so long at another person. Unlike a sleeper, Rembrandt (a Rembrandt self-portrait) is no passive recipient of our gaze. He meets us.



Encountering Rodin

That’s no thinker but a performing of thinking,
that brazen, posturing, ponderous simulacrum,
that frozen, statuesque lump. This is a thinker,
Rodin’s first shot, a small terracotta creature
stuck on a metal rod, leaning forward,
neck straining, urgent
to see, to understand;

his hand a clenched claw,
the fingers cramped to his mouth;
his right eye a thumbed hollow,
his left eye a slit,
his back cracked and peeling
and lodged on a titanic thigh;

man or amphibian, taking life
from the fingers of his maker,
sprung from the oven of making,
still forming, gathering himself
for the first shot,
for the making,

for making the thought into thing,
the release of contortion,
the body’s projection
into thought that flows
from the head down the arm to the hand
to the nib that encounters – here, now – the page.

In July 1921 I saw The Making of Rodin at Tate Modern, an exhibition of the maquettes and plaster casts which were the first shots at the definitive marbles and bronzes with which many of the likely readers of my poems will be familiar. The quality of exploration and improvisation rejuvenated the works for me. The poem, an exploration of my feelings as I looked at one work, has, I hope, something of the same quality, reflecting the struggle of creation.



Things of Beauty
Kandinsky, Study for Composition VII

So lightsome and joyous this Study,
a ballet of greens and vermilions,
a profusion of Cambrian life forms,
flute solos of orange, floral starbursts of blue;
thudding browns and sunshiny yellows
are caught in the dance of the ocean,
the swirl of the springtime, urgent
as Stravinsky, sweet as Debussy:
just such a medley as I’d seen that day
in the gutter, distressful not blithe
because I couldn’t uncouple
the cylinders and circles and oblongs,
the crimsons and purples and glittering silvers
from crisps packets, sweet wrappers, coke tins.

Everything, looked at with detachment, is beautiful but that detachment is sometimes hard to achieve. Grey and rainy is as beautiful as sunny and dry but you can’t see that if you’re out in it.


Cover image Just a Moment by Ian HouseIan House taught in England, the United States and eastern Europe. His collections are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2021), all with Two Rivers Press. He lives in Reading.

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