Ashbery’s ‘The Painter’ is a curious poem, with many different layers of meaning to unwrap and unravel, and one that can’t simply be read without approaching these levels of comprehension – almost too abstract to understand on any one layer. Even having studied it in depth I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this poem, and I tend to think that this was an entirely deliberate act on the author’s part – using form, style and language to allow multiple interpretations of the poem – a comment on nature and humanity, a comment on the production of art or a comment on the idolisation of artists.
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This poem is a narrative at first reading – the simply written story of a painter. Reading more deeply it could be perceived to be a satirical comment on the concept of ‘art’ and the process of its creation – ‘he expected his subject toâ€¦ plaster its own portrait on the canvas’  , or on the idea of an artist – in calling the protagonist, who created art, a ‘painter’  , whilst referencing within ‘artists leaning from the buildings’  yet with no indication that these artists produced any kind of art. Finally, the nautical language, ‘wrecks’  and ‘painter’  (the rope used to attach a ship to the docks or land) could lead to an interpretation of the poem being a comment on nature reclaiming land that humanity ‘stole’.
The poem is undramatised but implies an omniscient third person narrator who takes no part in the action, but reflects on it within. The tone of this narrator is intellectual and neutral, with no indication that the narrator cares for the subject. This narrator does however manage to comment on the thoughts and feelings of the painter, ‘he enjoyedâ€¦ he expected’  indicating that the narrator is the voice of the author, as opposed to also being a character within the poem. It could also be argued that the narrator symbolises God – the omniscience and the references to prayer within the poem lend to this interpretation. ‘Just as children imagine a prayer is merely silence’  indicates that the author believes prayer cannot be merely silence, and hence the narrator could be symbolising God, hearing the painting as a prayer.
The formal structure of the poem is six and a half stanzas. The six stanzas narrate his history, almost in the fashion of speech, using a lot of enjambment, and structured sentences to create the narrative atmosphere of the poem. The final half stanza is one sentence long, and ends suddenly, ‘as though his subject had decided to remain a prayer’  . The ending of this stanza is significant because the death of ‘him’ is narrated in the first line of the last stanza, ‘they tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings’  . The reader is left to decide whether ‘him’ refers to the painter, or to the portrait – is it personalisation of his work, or is it the death of the artist pre-empting the natural loss of art to nature. The penultimate line mentions the loss of his equipment, ‘the sea devoured the canvas and the brush’  , therefore seeming to place these above the death of the painter or portrait in importance. The last line focuses back on the subject of nature, and the idea that the work would be left incomplete, much as the stanza was.
On one of its levels, the poem is about a painter struggling to paint nature, whilst succeeding in painting (wo)man, ‘he chose his wife for a new subject’  . The immediate conflict visible in this is the idea of man trying to exert control over nature and failing, and this is held up by the climax, where nature eventually wins. The level on which it could be read as a satire on the act of art, and role of an artist is the wordplay around ‘painter’ and ‘artist’ and the painter being the only one to produce art within the poem. These themes and levels tie together however to suggest that the core of the poem is a comment on the role of art – can art accurately reflect nature? Is it a task only for the elite or can anyone participates in its production? Can humans paint ‘true’ art or only a human image of what art might be?
In terms of time and place the poem appears to be set somewhere relatively modern – the language used is part of the typical vernacular in England, and until the last stanza the language is used to create a relatively realistic scenario in which we do not have to suspend disbelief, and even then ‘they tossed him, the portrait, from the highest of the buildings’  isn’t a statement that could be seen as ‘fantastic’, only as unlikely in today’s culture.
As far as I can tell, my social and cultural distance from the poem isn’t that great, so I will probably be reading it quite closely to the way in which the author wrote it – there’s nothing to indicate that the painter deviates from social norms or male stereotypes, except perhaps his submissive nature, in having been ‘put to work’ by the other people in the building. I would say however that I have a distance from the poet, who is an older man, and that some of the themes within the poem might mature with age.
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The world view and ideology of the poem seems to be that nature is the pinnacle of art, and anything a human creates is secondary to that. It highlights the importance and value of the experience of a painter, but passes satirical comment on the idea of an ‘artist’ – the artists in this poem are never seen even to try and create. In that way it denigrates artists, saying that nature is a higher form of art, and that maybe it’s hubris to claim the identity of artist for oneself.
To some extent, the poem evokes a sense of peace – whilst in places the content is approaching violent, the form is quite gentle, and as a narrative poem the reader has some emotional distance from the story. It also leaves the reader with a sense of questioning the real meaning of the poem – what is it asking about the nature of art?
Written in a very simple style, very little imagery is immediately visible – apart from the comparison of his wife to ruined buildings, a short simile. This is nonetheless very effective, almost summarising the overarching theme of the poem in one line, where the phrase ‘ruined buildings’  implies a taking back of buildings by nature, much like the images you see of trees bursting out of long abandoned houses. It could also be argued that the sea is a metaphor for the concept of nature as a whole – and the reclamation of humankind and art by the sea as relating to nature reclaiming the world. The poem is typically quite direct however, and even the aforementioned simile is very simple, but the conflict of the painter and the sea is central to the meaning, the fact that whilst he can paint a ‘vast’  portrait of his wife, he is completely unable to paint nature, at least with any integrity.
It might be that it’s impossible to answer that with relation to such a complex poem. It certainly uses structure, form and style effectively to create a questioning atmosphere within itself, in which the poem is very open to interpretation on the roles and interaction of human, art and nature, by the reader.
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