Response to Alina Kwiatowska

I suppose one should be flattered to have one’s poetry analyzed. This is the case with my “Bedroom in Arles” ekphrastic poem, which is given a few paragraphs of response by Polish linguistics professor Alina Kwiatowska in the book Cognitive Grammar in Literature, edited by Chloe Harrison, Louise Nuttall, Peter Stockwell, and Wenjuan Yuan (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamens Publishing, 2014). In Kwiatowska’s chapter, “Representing the Represented: Verbal Variations on Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles,” her observations appear on pages 225 and 226. I present the text here to offer comments in response.

Michael Dylan Welch: ‘Bedroom in Arles’

The poem by Michael Dylan Welch (2012) is another whose first-person narrator (presumably identical with the author) is convinced he knows what could have made van Gogh happy.

This time he is not addressing the painter, but rather putting himself onstage, pushing van Gogh to the side, but inviting a comparison, leaving the judgement to the implied reader. Not surprisingly, this ego-centric poem with an objectively construed narrator begins with the description of the latter’s own bedroom, zooming in on the items that have to do with books and reading. The first two lines suggest the poet’s elation and contentment with their role in his life:

My bedside books are dreams to drink,

paths to lap up, absinthe to imbibe.

I have reading glasses now,

and tall stacks of books seem as rickety as me,

till a new bookcase finds room in the house.

Having proclaimed his happiness with his way of life, he then points out the lack of books in van Gogh’s bedroom—and so presumably in his life—taking pity on the artist, and suggesting that this lack was instrumental in his depression: ‘Even a bullet to the chest / cannot end / such bookless, dreamless sadness.’ However, the purpose of the poem is not only to declare the superiority of the lifestyle choices of this particular author over those of the famous painter; it also, perhaps primarily, declares the superiority of word over image: books are claimed to be opening new prospects (‘words / show me the road where I will go’), while the painter’s only ‘dreams / may be the colours in paintings / hung carelessly on vivid walls, / yet the window stays closed / to tomorrow.’

I’m not sure that the poem asserts any conviction that I would “know” what could have made the painter happy, but any poem is open, of course, to interpretation. My poem is in three parts. The first part is autobiographical—or readers can take it as such. The second part describes the scene in the painting, which we know from history, and the title of the painting, is van Gogh’s bedroom. And the third part is deliberately separate to provoke an ambiguity as to whether it’s about me (connecting to the first part of the poem), about van Gogh (connecting to the second part), or perhaps both. But the reference to the bullet to the chest—and the fact that my own life isn’t bookless—should make it clear that I’m talking about the painter. But is van Gogh really dreamless, as the final line of my poem suggests? I would say no. I compare books to dreams (that is, having hopes and desires for the future), and thus one could say that I privilege the word over the image, but any person may choose to do that, whether he or she is a writer or not. Or one may choose the opposite—it’s simply a personal choice. Perhaps I suggest that books could have made the poet happier—as they have made me happier—but this is offered as a speculation, not as something I know.

In the poem’s second part I speculate—for that is what ekphrastic poetry can do, and often does—that van Gogh’s bedroom is dreamless. But then I say that it isn’t dreamless—“its only dreams / may be the colours in paintings.” I say that the “window stays closed / to tomorrow” (that is, resisting the hope of a brighter day) because van Gogh chose to end his life. Where, in all of this, do I say that I know what could have made the poet happier? Rather, I’m saying what has made me happy.

It seems that additional language in Alina Kwiatowska’s response is loaded, such as saying that I’m “convinced” I know what could have made van Gogh happier, that I’ve written an “ego-centric poem” in which I’ve “proclaimed” my happiness and “take pity on the artist.” Likewise, I seem to be decried for “putting [myself] onstage” and “pushing van Gogh to the side.” Hardly at all. I’m writing about both of us, inspired by van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom to contemplate my own bedroom. And isn’t it ego-centric of van Gogh to paint a picture of his bedroom? In any case, the poem ends with a focus on van Gogh, so he’s hardly pushed aside. And then Kwiatowska says I’m apparently declaring my superiority to the painter’s life. Indeed, how can Kwiatowska herself know that the “purpose” of my poem is to declare the superiority of my lifestyle choices (that is, to read a lot of books)?

As Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no frigate like a book”—and what more than a book to sail away on in pursuit of one’s dreams? Indeed, books have been a blessing to me, and perhaps they could have been more of a blessing to van Gogh, but that isn’t my point. My point is that something may well have been missing in van Gogh’s life—missing enough that he chose to end his life. Just as his window is literally closed in the painting, his window is figuratively closed in his life, with no anticipation for the future. I am fortunate that I have books (among many other blessings) that help me feel fulfilled. However, I don’t mean simply that books could have helped van Gogh, but that he needed something to fulfill him, if painting wasn’t doing it. I am no expert on the biography of van Gogh, nor have I studied his psychological motivations for suicide, but books serve as a metaphor for what might have been missing in the painter’s life.

Ultimately, the nature of an ekphrastic poem is that it does not have to limit itself to describing the painting or another kind of art. Rather, in its modern incarnation, ekphrasis can be any poem (or other piece of writing) written in response to another piece of art. To my mind this response can take any direction, any form, any tone. It can be literal, imaginative, whatever the poet wants. In my case, I took to comparing my own bedroom to van Gogh’s, and offered gratitude for the books I have in my life, regardless of whether van Gogh had them in his.