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Reading Cy Twombly:
Poetry in Paint
Mary Jacobus

One of The Times Literary Supplement’s Books of the Year 2016, chosen by Andrew Motion

Hardcover | 2016 | $45.00 | £37.95 | ISBN: 9780691170725
320 pp. | 7 x 10 | 96 color illus. 37 halftones.
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Reviews | Table of Contents
Introduction[PDF] pdf-icon

A Q&A with Mary Jacobus

Many of Cy Twombly's paintings and drawings include handwritten words and phrases—naming or quoting poets ranging from Sappho, Homer, and Virgil to Mallarmé, Rilke, and Cavafy. Enigmatic and sometimes hard to decipher, these inscriptions are a distinctive feature of his work. Reading Cy Twombly poses both literary and art historical questions. How does poetic reference in largely abstract works affect their interpretation?

Reading Cy Twombly is the first book to focus specifically on the artist’s use of poetry. Twombly’s library formed an extension of his studio and he sometimes painted with a book open in front of him. Drawing on original research in an archive that includes his paint-stained and annotated books, Mary Jacobus’s account—richly illustrated with more than 125 color and black-and-white images—unlocks an important aspect of Twombly’s practice.

Jacobus shows that poetry was an indispensable source of reference throughout Twombly’s career; as he said, he "never really separated painting and literature." Among much else, she explores the influence of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson; Twombly’s fondness for Greek pastoral poetry and Virgil’s Eclogues; the inspiration of the Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and Twombly’s love of Keats and his collaboration with Octavio Paz.

Twombly’s art reveals both his distinctive relationship to poetry and his use of quotation to solve formal problems. A modern painter, he belongs in a critical tradition that goes back, by way of Roland Barthes, to Baudelaire. Reading Cy Twombly opens up fascinating new readings of some of the most important paintings and drawings of the twentieth century.

Mary Jacobus is professor emerita of English at the University of Cambridge and Cornell University, and an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. She has written widely on visual art, Romanticism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Her recent books include The Poetics of Psychoanalysis and Romantic Things. She lives in Ithaca, New York, and Cambridge, UK.


"A gripping and revelatory study."--Andrew Motion, Times Literary Supplement

"Jacobus . . . assesses with great acumen what Twombly’s aims were, and shows brilliantly how he combines the various poetic motifs in his painting."--Marjorie Perloff, Times Literary Supplement

"Mary Jacobus . . . carries us on a marvellous voyage through the artist's mind and beyond."--Marina Warner, Observer

"Through unprecedented access to his notebooks and annotated sources--a vast pool encompassing everything from Homer to Pound--Jacobus elegantly illuminates the complex relationship between word and image in an oeuvre that teems with potentiality and impropriety."--Lucy Watson, Financial Times

"Jacobus' careful reading and broad learning, her understanding of Twombly's art and the poetry he included in it, and her synthetic discussion of literature and art in various periods and genres--her chapter on pastoral is especially breathtaking--all make this a complex, stunningly memorable book."--Elizabeth Greene, Times Higher Education

"A highly original study."--Apollo Magazine

"A fine example of literary scholarship inspired by art."--Michael Bird, The Telegraph

"[A] fresh and intricate study of Twombly's citations and overall engagement with verse. . . . [Jacobus] profitably confronts Twombly's work as a literary critic . . . enriching the work with themes of memory, time, concealment, sexuality, translation, and what she describes at one point as, ‘the inexhaustible relation of image and text--distinct, yet propped on one another.'"--James Miller, Hyperallergic

"[D]azzles both visually and intellectually. . . . A fascinating exercise in elucidation."--Bill Marx, Arts Fuse

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Table of Contents:

Preface and Acknowledgements ix
Introduction: Twombly's Books 1
1 Mediterranean Passages: Retrospect 24
2 Psychogram and Parnassus: How (Not) to Read a Twombly 51
3 Twombly's Vagueness: The Poetics of Abstraction 78
4 Achilles' Horses, Twombly's War 103
5 Romantic Twombly 133
6 The Pastoral Stain 160
7 Psyche: The Double Door 186
8 Twombly's Lapse 210
Postscript: Writing in Light 234
Notes 243
Bibliography 285
Index 299

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