Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Poem: X. J. Kennedy

X. J. Kennedy
One of the most controversial works of 20th century art--and American art--was Marcel Duchamp's (1887-1968) landmark painting "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2." Perhaps it is most commonly linked to its scandal-provoking appearance at the Association of American Painters and Sculptors1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art show, also known as the famous Armory Show, in New York, where it spark outrage and tirades, a good deal of mockery, and profound inspiration among the artists who saw its map towards the art that was to come. Its detractors included very high profile figures, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who commented:
Take the picture which for some reason is called "A Naked Man Going Down Stairs." There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now, if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, 'A Well-Dressed Man Going Up a Ladder', the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the 'Naked Man Going Down Stairs'. From the standpoint of terminology each name would have whatever merit inheres in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture."

(Despite his otherwise positive comments about the artistic daring on display, Roosevelt apparently hated the Cubist work and decried the fact that anyone would buy "a picture of a misshapen nude woman, repellent from every standpoint." Critic Julian Street remarked with exasperation that what he saw in Duchamp's work was "the explosion of a shingle factory."

The 1913 Armory
Show catalogue page
showing Duchamp's
exhibit entries
Even before arriving in New York, though, Duchamp's succès de scandale had provoked dissension. A work in oil on canvas, it fuses elements of Cubism, in its recourse to the diagram, the superposition of planes of reality and unconventional perspective, with Futurism's emphasis on motion and the technological. Duchamp was aware of African, Indigenous and Asian plastic art, as well as stroboscopic photographic and cinematic studies of human movement that had begun to appear in the 1880s and 1890s, and which were influencing peers like Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Metzinger, among others, in France, and the Futurists in Italy. Their Salon des Independents "Salle 41" show in 1911 had served as the coming-out party for Cubism as a movement, though Picasso's famous Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, arguably the first Cubist work, appeared three years earlier in 1907, and Braque's blocky, abstracted Maisons à L'Estaque debuted in 1908.

As it turned out, Duchamp's initial attempt to exhibit the painting in March 1912 was a failure, though it did appear in the Société des Artistes Indépendentes exhibition catalogue, as exhibit 1001, but as "Nu descendent l'escalier," not "Nu descendent un escalier, no. 2." The hanging committee asked him to withdraw the painting, allegedly because of its lyrical title; the fact that, unlike the work of the other Cubists, the figure was not seated, but in motion, and thus being disrespected; and because it seemed also to reflect the detectable influence of Italian Futurism. (You can see correspondences in the contemporaneous paintings of Balla, Boccioni, Carrà, and Severini, and the American Joseph Stella.) The painting did, however, appear later that year at the Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona, and then again amid the work of the Société exhibit artists at the Salon de la Section d'Or at the Galérie de la Boétie. The next year, it appeared the Armory Show, and such was the sensation that it provoked comments from critics, including the President of the US, as well as immediate parodies and jokes. But its influence upon American painters and viewers who saw it was immediate.

The painting toured the US, and continued to spark a furor while also galvanizing Duchamp's fellow artists. You can see it on display, when it is not traveling, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with other Duchamp treasures. In fact, you can see four versions, in various media, of the nude--No. 1 (1911), No. 2 (1912), No. 3 (1916), and No. 4 (1937)--on the museum's website even if they're not on the wall. The main and best known one, it turns out, will soon be on exhibit as part of the museum's  "Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950," which runs from April 18 through September 3, 2018.

After all the buildup, the question is: where's the poem about this painting? One famous version that I read in junior high was X. J. Kennedy's 1961 three-stanza poem "Nude Descending A Staircase." The poem was not assigned but it was in a poetry anthology and had "nude" in the title so I read it. I realized a few years later that because we were in Catholic school we probably were not going to be asked to read a poem about a "nude" (though we did read Lysistrata and parts of The Clouds in 9th grade Greek). What stuck out for me was that the poem rhymed in an A-B-A-B fashion and it was somewhat funny. Did I have any of the background I detailed above? No. This was in the pre-Internet days, and I surely would not have gone to my school or local library to look up the background on a poem I wasn't being assigned to read. Instead, I came across an image of the painting and more about Duchamp later, and it was around that time that I read up a bit more about XJ Kennedy. I cannot say that I am a huge fan of his poetry, but this poem has always remained with me.

XJ Kennedy (1929-) is a native of Dover, New Jersey, and the author and editor of 21 books of poetry, fiction and translation; 10 introductions and guides to literature and writing; and 20 works for children. Nude Descending a Staircase: Poems, Songs, a Ballad, published by Doubleday in 1961, was his debut volume. It received the Academy of American Poets' Lamont Award and made his name and reputation. For a number of years he taught at Tufts University, but left to become a freelance writer in 1978 and has, as is clear by the book totals, been nothing less than prolific. By the time I came across the poem, he also was serving as the poetry editor of The Paris Review. Kennedy's poems are notably formalist, and he has long been a proponent of formalism in American poetry. (It also strikes me today that the most famous poem about Duchamp's radical artwork is about as conventional as you can get, but such are life's ironies.) If you like the poem below, click on his hyperlinked name, and you'll find many more such poems on Poetry's website.


by X. J. Kennedy

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh--
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to let her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.

Copyright © X. J. Kennedy, from Nude Descending
A Staircase: Poems, Songs, a Ballad. New York:
Doubleday, 1961. All rights reserved.

Finally, here is Duchamp's painting--the 1912, No. 2 version:

Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) Oil on canvas, 58 inches x 35 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection.

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