The Poet at the Art Museum

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The Chrysler Museum of Art, recently re-opened in Norfolk, Virginia after being closed for more than a year for an extensive renovation and expansion, is a goldmine of knowledge and inspiration for visual artists and writers alike. The space is cavernous, with soft sunlight in the inner courtyard and tastefully chosen lighting in the galleries. There is a quality of the place that muffles sound and lends it a sacred feeling.

I am reminded of Larkin’s poem “Church Going”, only the holy here is still holy. Here in quiet beauty are some of the greatest images that the human inner eye and hands have ever wrought. Highlights include Mary Cassatt’s The Familywhich depicts, in golden summer light, a mother, young daughter and a chubby baby, forming a kind of mystic triangle. Works of art like this never fail to suggest images and stories to other kinds of artists who deal in images, writers and poets. Possible questions for the writer who stands before this painting are who is this woman, what does she feel holding the baby in her arms, what thoughts are going through the mind of young girl as she stares so intently at the baby? Love or jealousy or both? What is the building is behind them, and who waits there?

But beyond this are the colors and shapes of the piece and the way they stimulate the poet’s image making faculty: the purple of the woman’s dress, the black of the girl’s dress, the shiny round flesh of the baby’s belly. I believe that you can’t force inspiration, but you can definitely put yourself in situations that make it more likely to come. No situation is as viscerally powerful as standing in front of this painting, or any of the dozens of others there, not to mention the Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese art, the glass collection, and the mirrored abstract sculptures out in the garden.

Oh! There’s a new café in case all this art makes you thirsty for a beer. Yes, I said beer. Local craft. Try the Smartmouth Art Mouth, brewed just for the re-opening. But if you can’t make it to out to Norfolk, go to an art museum near you. Any good museum can be an essential resource for the creative writer.

Gary Charles Wilkens, Assistant Professor of English at Norfolk State University, was the winner of the 2006 Texas Review Breakthrough Poetry Prize for his first book, The Red Light Was My Mind. His poems have appeared in more than 50 online and print venues, among themThe Texas Review, The Cortland Review, the Adirondack Review, The Prague Revue, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume II:Mississippi.