poetry and sculpture: a q&a with murray dewart

by Laurin Macios | December 2016

The new anthology Poems About Sculpture--a unique anthology of poems from around the world and across the ages about our most enduring art form--is edited by Murray Dewart with a forward by Robert Pinsky. We recently had the chance to ask Dewart a few questions about the book and the relationship between poetry and sculpture.

In what ways does language (or even poetry specifically) inspire or shape your work as a sculptor?
Years ago I used to carve figures in my work, often lovers out of Homer. There would be a man and a beautiful woman always based on my wife Mary. And as I struggled with the slow process of carving and getting the hands right and the angle of the heads, at the back of my mind was always the line from Keats, "Forever wilt thou love and she be fair."

Sculpture is a balance of poetry and engineering. Too much engineering and it's boring. Too much poetry and it tips over, falls apart, does not hold up.

How does the wordlessness of sculpture interact with language?
Becket said that sculpture restores silence to the world. Which is true until poets come along and riff and rhyme on what they see.

Have you created a sculpture in response to, or in conversation with, a poem?
Yeats and Byzantium and his understanding of artifice, the artifice of eternity. But Yeats got this from the Book of Kells, (sitting in the Trinity College Library) which was a compendium of Celtic sculptural forms and ancient architecture.

How does your artistic process differ when creating a public work versus private work?
Best of all is when work conceived in the studio is chosen for a public destination. Work of any consequence has to be born of a comprehensive emotional need. It needs to follow an inner template. Call it a template from the heart room. Pleasing a committee is not often conducive for this. When Apollinaire died he was Picasso's best friend. Picasso sent his design for the memorial sculpture to the committee five times. It was rejected every time but in failing to please the committee, Picasso reinvented sculpture for the 20th century.

Do granite and bronze inspire you in different ways? How does the material contribute to the form?
When you split granite in the right way, you can feel the mountain and hear it speak. Bronze begins in fire, molten and flowing, then hardens to a beautifully workable and expressive medium, which Stevens called "fluent, the life that is fluent in even the wintriest bronze."

How did you approach the curation of the anthology poems? What was the process like for you?
I started with the poems that were deep in my bones, the Yeats, the Keats, William Blake, Jack Gilbert. Then the poets that I felt most loyal to: Dickenson, Heaney, Olds, Holzer, Julia Randall, Rachel Hadas.

Was there a specific poem that sparked the idea of the anthology?
Robert Pinsky’s George Segal poem in the New Yorker sparked the book. I wrote him and complimented him and said, “Let’s do a book--poems about sculpture.” He wrote me back and said, “Great idea! You do it.” Keats loomed large because of his iconic treatment of Greek sculptures.

Were you surprised by any of the poems--by the sculpture that inspired any of them, etc.?
I had help from my assistant editor Maude Emerson, who is deeply knowledgeable about contemporary poets and emerging poets. (She is currently teaching at Berkeley.) Many new poets came to my attention.

Do you have a favorite poem or two from the book?
The Byzantium poems of Yeats. He took the Byzantium idea from The Book of Kells that sits in the Dublin library. It also gave Joyce the sense of a dense web of scrolling life forms that is key to Finnegan’s Wake. The Book of Kells was allegedly done on Iona in the 8th century near the Duart Castle of the clan MacLean.


 “I have been making sculpture for forty years and sometimes it seems like a parable about landscape where I’m following a plow toward a far horizon. The rolling terrain is American, the plow is my own, self-tooled invention. My granite and bronze gate-forms are sometimes functional, sometimes metaphoric. While I was born in Vermont, viewers often comment on the Asian sensibility they find in my work. Maybe it’s the gesture to the landscape they see, my wish to make sculptures look at home in the natural world of gardens and in parks. Call it my quest for harmony, of both the inner and the outer kind.” --Murray Dewart