| Nude Descending a Staircase, XJ Kennedy, First Edition (1961) |
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If Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2” (1912) is a song, it might be a down-tempo, acid jazz piece with sound collages assembled from turntable scratching. NDaS No. 2 may also stutter, tap and hiccup in a systematic, almost cerebral rhythm to suit the movement of the soundtrack. If it spoke poetry though, it might as well be XJ Kennedy’s interpretation of it in 1961. In celebration of the National Poetry Month, we revisit Kennedy (b. 1929)’s Nude Descending a Staircase, the poem inspired by Duchamp’s infamous painting of the same name.
Poetry and art are both fleeting love affairs and life-long spouses. For one, each depends on the other intermittently out of intrigue and loneliness, but they never divorce each other—only complement. Roman poet Horace (c. 13 BC) once decreed, “ut picture poesis,” or “as is painting, so is poetry.” Even in our functional vocabulary in art criticisim, we deploy phrases such as the “art of the poetry,” or the “poetry in that art work” to make sense of the art work. Other poets who “spoke” art include W.H. Auden to Pieter Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, and Nancy Sullivan to Number 1 by Jackson Pollock. In each of these poems, the poet's intent seemed never to be strict interpretation or adherence to the integrity of the painting, but to introduce fresh perspectives and frame of mind to engage the viewer in another dynamic.
Nude Descending A Staircase (1961) was XJ Kennedy’s first collection of published poetry that also won the eighth annual Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets that same year. He will read at the WD Snodgrass Symposium (4/27/2011), an event held in honor of the late University of Delaware faculty member and Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry in 1960.
Nude Descending a Staircase
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.
The Poet Speaks of Art, English 205, a project designed for “Introduction to Poetry” at the English department at Emory university.