October 16, 2013  |  Learning and Engagement
Combining Poetry with Visual Art to See (and Feel) in a New Way

Kenneth Goldsmith performs a guerilla reading in the MoMA galleries.

Kenneth Goldsmith performs a guerilla reading in the MoMA galleries. Photo: Jackie Armstrong

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” – Leonardo da Vinci

When visiting a museum, especially in New York City, it’s easy to wander around without pausing to look at specific works of art. After all, there’s so much to see and crowds to contend with. Even when you do stop to look at a work of art, sometimes it’s hard to engage with and interpret what you’re looking at. The label tells you the artist, year, and title, but beyond that it’s up to the viewer to make sense of a work of art.

Kenneth Goldsmith performs a guerilla reading in the MoMA galleries. Photo: Jackie Armstrong

Kenneth Goldsmith performs a guerilla reading in the MoMA galleries. Photo: Jackie Armstrong

Uncontested Spaces: Guerilla Readings was part of the inaugural Artists Experiment, a series of collaborations between MoMA’s Education Department and artists, including poet Kenneth Goldsmith. On Fridays, Mr. Goldsmith performed readings in MoMA’s galleries, while on Wednesdays different poets and artists performed readings at the invitation of Mr. Goldsmith. At each of these readings, e-mails from attendees were randomly collected and these individuals were sent an online survey to share their responses to the reading they attended.

Visitors’ responses revealed that the combination of poetry and visual art breathed life into the respective mediums and transformed the galleries into a place of active looking and listening. Stopping to listen to a poetry reading not only provided an opportunity to focus on a particular work, but also to see that work from different perspectives and think about it in new ways.

67% of visitors said they stumbled upon the reading, many explaining that they stopped to listen out of curiosity. Over half indicated that they listened to the entire reading, with most readings lasting between 20 to 30 minutes.

An astounding 96% of participants said the readings had an impact on their visit to MoMA. Some visitors explained that the readings helped them to look at art in new ways and appreciate art in ways they hadn’t before, while others thought the readings enhanced their overall experience and made them feel involved.

Kenneth Goldsmith performs a guerilla reading in the MoMA galleries. Photo: Jackie Armstrong

Kenneth Goldsmith performs a guerilla reading in the MoMA galleries. Photo: Jackie Armstrong

Thinking about the ways in which poetry and visual art can create a powerful combination, here are a few of the comments visitors shared with us:

“The reading worked well with the work behind the poet. The two pieces came together in a thought-provoking way. I also particularly enjoyed watching others’ reactions to the poetic performance.”

“Let the poet show the powerful associative way word art works in relation to visual art. Showed other aspects of the work that a more traditional guide would not give.”

“Inspired me. Put me in a mood that also gave me a deeper connection with the art work I experienced after the reading”

“Exciting. Added to the positive energy of the experience; people connecting in a different way than expected at some museum exhibits.”

It’s incredible how much an experience is enriched when art forms are combined, one illuminating the other and requiring the use of multiple senses. Not only do poetry readings layer words over the experience of looking at painting, they also add the element of performance. It is this combination that seems to transform observers into participants and prompt them to notice things they might otherwise have missed.


This is fine when at a psychobabble place like PS1 and Contempt art. But interferes with most great art as it is mostly musical, “clever” academic poetry ruins the combinations and flows of color/harmony, line/melody, and structure/rhythm. Some art is poetic but then limited to line and basic constant structure so mostly drawing, melody over riding a beat. Great art like Michelangelo’s overwhelms the poetic of da Vinci. Passion beating down cleverness.

Beautiful idea. Personally, I love the way that adding range to the artistic sensory input increases the emotional effect on the viewer/listener/person experiencing all facets of the exhibit.

The difference between “interfering” and “communicating with” should not be ignored in this situation. If a piece of art, like one created by “Michelangelo” as aforementioned, cannot stand to intertwine with other artistic media, like that of da Vinci (or in this case, Goldsmith’s poetry), perhaps the flaw is not in the art itself but the viewer of said art.
The communication of different art pieces is a lovely experience, with which the viewer/listener can create his/her own dialogue. Each respective art piece influences and, ultimately, changes the other.
Brilliant example of how interdisciplinary arts can incite change.

I enjoyed this article and am also investigating the combination of poetry and painting. Not so much with someone reading aloud, but verse offered with vision. It may be a deeper place for a person to be brought through if they quietly “enter in” when the two mediums are presented together. Anyway, just felt led to share.

I write poetry and I paint. I started combining the two in different ways. I’ve finally settled on one strong graphic image with one verse and one word painted in a large text, so you can read it from across the room. I wanted to get people to slow down in front of my paintings, and having text for them to read does this. People seem to like it. I think it gives the work an added dimension, and a way for the viewer to connect to the work. Plus, it’s just more fun for me.

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