Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life, and the Turning World

Overview

Poets have long been drawn to the images and techniques of still life. Artists and poets alike present intimate worlds where time is suspended in the play of form and color and where history disappears amid everyday things. The genre of still life with its focus on the domestic sphere seemed to some a retreat from the political and economic pressures of the last century. Yet many American artists and writers found in the arrangement of local objects a way to connect the individual to larger public concerns. ...
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Overview

Poets have long been drawn to the images and techniques of still life. Artists and poets alike present intimate worlds where time is suspended in the play of form and color and where history disappears amid everyday things. The genre of still life with its focus on the domestic sphere seemed to some a retreat from the political and economic pressures of the last century. Yet many American artists and writers found in the arrangement of local objects a way to connect the individual to larger public concerns. Indeed, the debates over still life reveal just what is at stake in the long-standing quarrel over poetry's meaning and usefulness. By exploring literary works of still life by Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Richard Wilbur—as well as the art of Joseph Cornell—the eminent critic Bonnie Costello considers how exchanges between the arts help to establish vital thresholds between the personal and public realms. In her view, Stevens and Williams bring the turmoil of history into their struggle for local aesthetic order; Bishop "studies history" in the intimate objects and arrangements she finds in her travels; Cornell, an artist inspired by poetry and loved by poets, links his dream boxes to contemporary events; and Richard Wilbur seeks to mend a broken postwar world within the hospitable spheres of art and home. In Planets on Tables, Costello describes a period when some of America's greatest poets and artists found in still life a way to "contemplate the good in the midst of confusion," to bring the distant near, and to resist—rather than escape—the pressures of their times.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Bonnie Costello argues for still life as a mode of juxtaposition that can hold contrary ideas at a standstill without merging or synthesizing them. Far from being a minor genre, still life becomes, for the author, the aesthetic end of the more politicized modernism of the 1930s (a point that is qualitatively different from the argument that still life was deliberately aesthetic). In Costello's modeling, still life is not restricted to its material components but can include radio waves, foreign news, technology, cinema, even the artist's vocation. . . . She concentrates on one visual artist, Joseph Cornell, juxtaposing him to canonical American poets Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and the academically undertreated Richard Wilbur. In so doing, she virtually wipes out the past generation's distinction between the subjective Stevens and the quasi-objective Williams—a fruitful side effect of her inventive exploration of intermedial crossings."—Choice

"A beautifully written study of modern American poetry and the still life, Planets on Tables shows how object poems, far from retreating into the static decorum of miniature, subtly register the large-scale shocks of history. Nuanced and superbly lucid, Bonnie Costello's readings reveal lyric poetry's interweaving of inner and outer worlds, war and household interiors, public and private spheres. This book renews our sense of the power of poetry to be true to the incessant interplay between the imagination and the planet of which it is a part."—Jahan Ramazani, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English, University of Virginia

"Still life does its political work not polemically but by awakening and sustaining our desire for an 'amenable world.' In this splendid book Bonnie Costello, one of our most important scholars of twentieth-century poetry, teaches us to draw sustenance from the genre Pliny the Elder called 'the lowest of the art forms,' but whose mandate in dark times is to remind us 'just how fragile ordinary living really is.' Costello is deeply conversant with both lyric poetry and visual art; she is also more broadly committed to exploring how artistic choices come to have political meaning. This is poetry criticism at its most buoyant and supple—a quietly luminous book."—Jane Hedley, K. Laurence Stapleton Professor of English, Bryn Mawr College

"Bonnie Costello, long recognized as among our most gifted readers of modern poems, additionally brings to her new book her extensive knowledge of the visual arts and her acuity about broader issues in poetics. Persuasively establishing still life as paradigmatic of how the lyric mode relates public and private worlds, Planets on Tables will be of interest not only to students of modernism but also to anyone engaged with lyric poetry."—Heather Dubrow, author of The Challenges of Orpheus and Tighe-Evans Professor and John Bascom Professor of English, University of Wisconsin–Madison

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801446139
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 2/7/2008
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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