Poetry and Metaphor

Poetry and Metaphor

“To me, they [the paintings] only make sense as a question. Through my life, weird juxtapositions of time, ideas, and seeing things made me wonder about my own existence. I try to put that down in a picture.”    –James Rosenquist

Although Rosenquist avoids storytelling and explicit narrative, his paintings are full of meaning. The fragmented images and strange juxtapositions of objects actually serve to increase the possibilities for multiple meanings and levels of interpretation.

Like a good poem, a Rosenquist painting asks you to seek out information. The strange couplings, abrupt changes in color, and scale disrupt the process of recognition. They are filled with contradictions in scale and context that suggest metaphors rather than specific stories. Separately, the various images convey their own conventional meanings; taken together, they convey new meaning that remains open to individual interpretation. Like complex poetry, Rosenquist’s paintings require time. Unlike advertising images, they cannot be taken in at a glance.

Star Thief is a prime example. It has been described as a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that do not fit. Like many of Rosenquist’s pictures it has created a controversy. When it was selected for installation in Miami’s International Airport, the decision divided the community. The most outspoken member of the opposition was the president of Eastern Airlines, former astronaut Frank Borman, who upon seeing Star Thief announced, “I have had some exposure to space flight and I can tell you without any equivocation that there is no correlation… between the artist’s depicting and the real thing.” Although Borman thought that Rosenquist had missed the mark in his depiction of outer space, Rosenquist describes the intent of the painting, not as a depiction of space travel in the literal sense, but as a metaphor for creative exploration. According to Rosenquist, the star represents your focus on a goal, but once you have reached that star, that goal, you may gain a new perspective and travel in a new direction. In this painting, “The star is the original attraction. Once you reach the star, you make a diversion because you can see even further. So, the star is the ‘thief’ that brings you to all the places you didn’t originally plan to go. It is like thinking: the more [thinking] you do, the deeper you go, and the more mysteries you see and want to discover.”

View + Discuss

James Rosenquist (b. 1933)
Star Thief, 1980
Oil on canvas, 17 feet 1 inch x 46 feet (5 m 20.7 cm x 14 m 2 cm)
Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Ludwig Collection
© James Rosenquist / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY  

1. Describe as fully as possible everything you see in this painting. What are the things that you can name? Are there parts of the painting that are too ambiguous to name? Brainstorm a list of possibilities for each of the ambiguous areas. What might these objects be? Consider whether the various elements you have identified in Star Thief share anything in common. Propose some ideas for why Rosenquist may have placed these images together.

2. Write a list of words that you would use to describe this painting. Then, as a class, make a cumulative list of these words. What are the “top ten” words used to describe this work?

3. This painting relates, in part, to Rosenquist’s interests in space. In what ways is this evident? The artist has various opinions about human exploration and intervention into space. What message do you think he is conveying here?

Art Explorations

Have students contribute any everyday object to a central collection spot. Students should sit in a circle around the pile of objects. Ask the first student to choose an object and think about what each object looks like.

I see (the name of the object)...
It looks like...

Pass the object to the next student, so that they can contribute the next metaphor. Encourage them to make as many as many illogical comparisons (aka metaphors and similes) as they can.

I see a pair of scissors...
It looks like a person doing jumping jacks… a hungry bird…
a rocket ship...

They should think about far-fetched and the ridiculous comparisons as well as logical ones. The last student to contribute a metaphor for the object gets to choose the next object from the pile.

Use the lists of objects and descriptive words that were compiled in response to viewing Star Thief (see View + Discuss section). This should provide the class with an extensive list of both nouns and adjectives that grow out of responding to the painting. Write a poem by selecting from only these words. Repeat, delete, or change the order of the words as you please—but don’t add anything that was not on the original lists. The new poem should not be a description of Star Thief, but rather a springboard for your new invention using words harvested from the painting. When the poems are complete students should read them to the class.

Jot down snippets of conversation that you hear over a one-week period—at school, on the bus, on the radio, in the park. Take these bits of conversation and weave them together into a poem.

Star Thief was the focus of a public debate because powerful individuals objected to it being installed in the Miami International Airport. Are there certain guidelines that public art should meet? Stage a class debate to decide whether Star Thief should be displayed in local airport.

Additional Resources

Collom, Jack and Sheryl Noethe. Poetry Everywhere. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1994.

Fletcher, Ralph. Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem From the Inside Out, New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Goldsmith Wooldridge, Susan. Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996.

Livingston, Myra Cohn. Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

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