THE MAN WITH THE BUTTERNUT GUITAR

Standard

THE OLD GUITARIST

His pale blue bones bend
graciously, fragile as fossils
round the place of song

blue is the very world
that grounds him, clothes him
in arrest against blue stone;

blinded eyes shut out
all but his vision of
impending things ; they fall

into the hole of the guitar
where his limp thumb plucks
beauty out of tightened strings.

Pablo gave us this old man
when pitiful and melancholy
were the palette’s only colors

and a gessoed tabletop
the only panel ready to receive
the pentimento of his pain.

This is what it comes to,
the blue painting seems to say,
a blindness, poor and old and

left to suffer homeless
in a world of monochrome
under a dome bereft of stars.

Cold, cold, except for one
dear possibility, colored warm—
the promise of a butternut guitar.
.
.
the-man-with-the-butternut-guitar

98 responses »

    • Thank you so much, my friend, for those kind remarks. I think you know what it means to read such encouraging comments.

      Wallace Stevens wrote a poem, “The Man With The Blue Guitar” and it is the accepted literary criticism to say that Stevens’ poem is about this painting by Picasso. The only problem is, Wallace Stevens himself denies that his poem was inspired by the painting. Anyway the academic beat goes on about a blue guitar and this painting as the inspiration for the poem. I guess they’re all color blind, among other things.

  1. I was captured by your title and love how you gave the old guitarist an instrument of warm colour.
    I have recently heard that someone actually made a guitar from a butternut tree to raise awareness of their endangered status, did you know this? I found out when I was googling pumpkin varieties [don’t ask 🙂 ]

    I love the voice you have given to the painting Cynthia – it is so beautiful.

    I loved Picasso’s Blue Period and once, such a long time ago, studied this painting and came to my own understanding of it – different to the usually given one and probably based in my own hopeless romanticism ……… I thought he became the music – this momentary posture a reflection of the rest between notes, a small death in the music ….. Picasso, in his blueness, perhaps, did not choose to show us that when the plucked string released the next note, life returned to the old man. I know, I know, I’ll never pass an art appreciation exam.

    Thank you for the momentary opportunity to return to my youth 🙂 I’m off to hunt down some icecream recipes on You Tube. xo

    • Yes! I heard that about wood from the butternut being used to make a guitar. I think it would be beautiful. There’s also a lot of American history of our Civil War and the soldiers’ uniforms being dyed with bark from the butternut, so that butternut became the word for that particular shade of yellowish brown. (Don’t laugh, but I also think the shape of the guitar is not unlike a butternut squash 🙂 or is it a butternut pumpkin in New Zealand…. )

      Forget art appreciation exams. I love your interpretation of the painting. There was a time for me too when I dearly loved the paintings of Picasso’s “blue period” . He actually did paint this one on a table top in those days when he was dirt poor and had just lost his best friend to suicide. In recent years, other paintings have been discovered underneath the guitarist apparently, of a woman and a child. (Pentimento again!). I do think of the only warmth in the painting to be the color of the guitar, indicating, perhaps, Picasso’s hope that art would see him through.

      Happy lemon meringue pie ice cream!

  2. This took me back (perversely) to my teens, when Picasso’s blue period seemed to embody my mood best. Today I see that the painting, like your poem, is a composition of exquisite balance in line and colour and, of course, comment on the human condition. Music brings the greatest warmth into our lives.

    • I also lived in the mood of Picasso’s blue period at a certain phase of adolescence. It was a nice discovery to realize I still loved this particular painting–in a different way—after so many years and the layers of experience that inevitably change the perspective. When I came to see it as a work of art and really look at it, I was dazzled by the truth of some of Picasso’s own words: it takes a long time to become young. And to look through cleaner windows, I would add.

  3. I also love this picture – in the Chicago Art Institute? Your poetic reference to the “butternut” guitar is genius. For me, the butternut not only defines the color but also subtlety refers to food of which the old man is obviously in need. He fondles it for its nourishment, warmth, and art (music). The lines:

    they fall
    into the hole of the guitar
    where his limp thumb plucks
    beauty out of tightened strings

    hum with beauty. You outdid yourself with this one.
    In my ignorance I was unfamiliar with Stevens’ “Blue Guitar” poem which I have now read. I enjoyed his use of the blue guitar as an segue into poetic reminiscing about life and his words “you do not play things as they are” In reference to Picasso’s, much loved, painting, I prefer your “butternut” for the only thing in the picture which is NOT blue is the guitar!

    • Yes, the painting resides at The Art Institute of Chicago. I remember seeing it when it was on tour, or on loan (so long ago I don’t remember which) to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Of course there are countless prints and internet versions of it too.

      I love that you picked up on the food aspect of the word butternut also, Jane. I started mostly from color with that word, because my mind was on a paint palette, and only later did I realize that shape and line also suggested the same word.

      For years I have seen “the man with the blue guitar” as a phrase associated with the Picasso painting and only recently was struck by the very simple fact that the guitar is not blue! I am also quite familiar with the Wallace Stevens poem, and somehow came across the fact that Stevens protested when his publisher wanted to put the Picasso painting on the cover of his book of poems, saying that any relation to that painting was peripheral, if it existed at all. It’s the critics who made the association and it’s now a meme. If you google ” the man with the blue guitar,” you get the painting by Picasso. O what a web we weave….. Ain’t life grand!

      Thanks so much for your inspiring comment, Jane

  4. What a poignant poem! What I love about this poem is the peek into Picasso’s pain at the moment he chose to transfer the only hues he could onto the only medium that would accept the colour of the sadness.

    This is what it comes to,
    the blue painting seems to say,
    a blindness, poor and old and

    left to suffer homeless
    in a world of monochrome
    under a dome bereft of stars…

    It is as if the creator and the created were fused into one by the grief, for eternity. Oh, yes, thanks for the promise of the butternut music.

    • What is known as “the blue period” in Picasso’s life and work does seem to continue to capture the imagination of so many, even after all these years…seeing the world in somber colors, down to stones and bones, is certainly a common human vision…eternal, as you say. But it looks like he still couldn’t resist that splash of a sunnier hue….butternut, a vegetable, a color, the soft wood from a butternut tree, shaped into a maker of music….Thanks, Uma, for your lovely comment.

  5. Being morose by nature, I’ve always liked this painting. My sensitivity toward my fellow man is epitomized, I think, by the words that always seem to come to my lips when seeing this old, bluish Segovia: Hey, old man, I know this great chiropractor…

    Your mention of the warmth of the guitar body was revelatory, a detail which now seems rather harmonious to me.

    • It does reverberate in the resident sadness, doesn’t it….The poor old guy probably couldn’t afford a chiropractor. (In Pablo’s day they called them quacks around here.) But if any Casals can still sit like that, I’d say he’s doing pretty well, at least with his legs.

      Having been cajoled, nay forced, into tolerating certain theoretical interpretations of a long solipsistic poem supposedly (but erroneously) about this very painting, the noticing of warm color was revelatory to me, too. One of those aha! moments when one suddenly discovers the obvious, and a certain harmoniousness with the universe—if not with its various churches— however fugitive, suddenly abounds.

      • The angularity is captivating–a broken man.

        But like Clinton and Trump, I think he should release his medical records–to put an end to the speculation.

        • Funny, I see imminently breakable, but not yet broken. I speculate that he has no medical records. Where would they be kept?

          Of course the release of medical records could only add fuel to the bonfire of gossip that already surrounds Hillary and The Donald, and we will add ageism to all the other ismic cries of the hordes of inveterate, however ignorant, opiners. The candidates are 68 and 70, and would be hounded by prognosticators.
          One of the most frustrating things about aging is that people who have never been old assume they know what it’s about…they place you in a prison of labels where only a certain kind of music is piped over the loudspeaker all day, every day… the music that was popular when you were in high school—which you hated then, and still hate to this day. It’s tough, being a Q-tip.

  6. Dear Cynthia
    Forgive me as I have not read the poem yet, using airport coffee lounge wi fi even as I write, off to Europe for 3 weeks, will read in peace upon my return and hopefully you will have posted a new one by then, so my joy will be doubled
    Warm regards

    • Dear Shubha,
      Thanks for the happy laugh! I am honored that you even keep track of these postings and will be very glad to have your comments whenever they come. Have a wonderful time in Europe. My warm regards always…

  7. A cold life made warm with music. A poor life made rich with music. I’m not at all familiar with Picasso’s art and so this poem reveals much to me. I love these lines in particular

    blinded eyes shut out
    all but his vision of
    impending things ; they fall

    into the hole of the guitar
    where his limp thumb plucks
    beauty out of tightened strings.

    They speak of transformation. “The promise of a butternut guitar.”

    • Picasso was at the beginning of what became his famous career when he painted this figure. It was part of a series of paintings that critics have called his ‘blue period,” when he was struggling as a young artist and had lost his best friend to suicide. Many of his paintings of that period are, like this one, about the poor, homeless, downtrodden and sad-looking people he observed and felt drawn to, in the streets around him. I’m glad you saw the possibility of transformation, because that’s what I saw in the way he chose to paint the old guitarist. Maybe he saw it too, because he certainly went on to be come a great innovative and revered artist. I haven’t often chosen to write a poem about a work of art (an ekphrastic poem, as it’s called) but this particular painting I knew and loved as a young person and recently revisited with a perspective that has changed and been enriched with time. Thanks, Susanne.

  8. I need to read more poetry. You sent me on a merry chase, Cynthia, first thinking about Heaney’s ‘Weighing in’: And this is all the good tidings amount to:/ This principle of bearing, bearing up/ And bearing out, just having to/ Balance the intolerable in others/Against our own, having to abide/Whatever we settled for and settled into/Against our better judgement. And then there is David St. John’s poem ‘Guitar,’ which begins and ends with ‘I have always loved the word ‘guitar.’ ‘More than the music I love scaling its woven/Stairways, more than the swirling chocolate of wood/ I have always loved the word guitar.’ This picture has always filled me with sadness, but the fact he still has his guitar (and it appears to be in better shape than Willie Nelson’s) may be something good–and your poem made me see that. The Heaney poem, well, that’s more about how we end up, in some ways. In any event, I loved the evocative language of your poem–bone ‘fragile as fossils’ and the promise of a butternut guitar…

    • I am shocked…shocked! I have never heard anyone say “I need to read more poetry.” I love that, Lisa. And I think your associations are interesting, but am not familiar with St. John’s poem ‘Guitar.’ I shall have to chase it down. I’m not sure, however, that I would love the word more than the music or the “swirling chocolate of wood.” Even for a lover of words, that’s a lot to ask of that one word, especially if one also loves music and the sense of touch. Had to laugh about your observation that the Picasso guitar seems in better shape than Willie Nelson’s. I’m glad you liked the language of this one. The “promise” only became clear to me recently when, after knowing that painting for many years, I suddenly saw the obvious… that in a very blue world, the guitar itself was not blue.

        • Thank you for that link, Lisa. Now that I’ve read the poem, and enjoyed it, I see what you mean. What the word “guitar” (or many another word too) might bring to one person’s imagination…of memories, persons, places, music… of all of the senses… is limitless and, like art, links actuality with possibility in a most gratifying way.

          • I’ve loved that poem since I first saw it in the New Yorker. It’s good a word or a photo or even a map can carry the imagination away. And it’s good there’s art, however much it gets devalued.

                • Having served for the last ten years of my working life on a college faculty, and kept track of where things have been trending since I retired, I am deeply discouraged about the general state of so-called higher education at the present moment. A propos of our usage of the phrase “higher education,” I would prefer the British way of calling it tertiary education…..as the next stage after primary and secondary education.

                • Now that’s a thought! I think there’s still a lot of good out there in education. But people misunderstand it. There are certain things that are basic knowledge and one should know. Other things one goes after to learn. But education–particularly secondary education–should prepare people for lifelong learning. Goodness. here I go!

    • I love the work of Picasso. It is almost impossible to believe the range and sweep of what he could do, from the real pathos of this old guitarist to the scandalous (at the time) Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, to the stark cubism of Guernica. He was a man of very strong feelings and a lot to say. Thank you for your kind words about the poem.

  9. Gosh, Cynthia, how well your poem conveys the melancholy feel of ‘The Old Guitarist’ from Picasso’s Blue Period in the early nineteen-hundreds, when he was on his uppers and grieving the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. The “Butternut Guitar” is a symbol of hope of course. The blind guitarist whose “pale blue bones bend / graciously, fragile as fossils” is clearly not long for this world but “his limp thumb plucks / beauty out of tightened strings.”

    I knew a few like the old guitarist during my long years in social housing, helping the homeless, so Picasso’s painting and your beautiful poem have special significance for me.

    Very best wishes,

    Paul

    • I can well imagine that The Old Guitarist certainly would bring back many memories of your years of social work among the homeless unfortunate, Paul, and it must have been difficult at times to hang on to that bit of warmth in a blue, blue world. Your sensitivity to that experience probably informs a great deal of your own poetry today, delicate, real, and lovely as it is. Thank you for your kind appreciation of the poem.

  10. This is a wonderful poem, Cynthia, and prompted me to contemplate the importance of this image of The Old Guitarist more fully than I have in the past. I am rather fascinated by what happens to my reading of this old man’s physical and emotional state when I view it rotated right by 90 degrees! To my mind the signs of his age, fragility and anguish are transformed into those of youth and perhaps even optimism.

    • Thank you, Brad. It is interesting, isn’t it, how one’s perception and perspective evolve over time. I’m re-reading more than I am reading these days, and quite amazed as things I thought, and thought I knew, have become somehow new…or at least more. (is “at least more” an oxymoron of sorts?)
      I tried the rotation. I think you’re right..he could be lying propped on one elbow, on a sandy beach, flipping his foot up, keeping time to the music of his guitar…

  11. I’m much more into blues guitar (as performed by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharp, etc.) than I am Picasso’s art, which renders me unqualified to enter into a conversation about his work….so I will simply say that I appreciate the picture you paint with your poem.

  12. And, having listened to you reading your poems, I think you own the title of rhapsode.

    “A professional reciter of poems.

    ETYMOLOGY:
    From Latin rhapsodia, from Greek rhapsoidia (recitation of epic poetry), from rhaptein (to stitch together) + aidein (to sing), from oide (song). Ultimately from the Indo-European root wed- (to speak), which also gave us parody, comedy, tragedy, melody, and ode. Earliest documented use: 1712.” Wordsmith.org

    • What a perfectly lovely thing to say, Yvonne! I have never thought of that word much, but as usual you have the knack for finding out meanings and derivations of things— and words— and it always delights and enlightens. My only recollection of a rhapsode is seeing images in Greek art/architecture that depict a rhapsode, usually wearing a cape and carrying a stalk of some kind. (This is totally appropriate, in my case, since I can hardly walk without a stick!) Otherwise, it conjures memories of learning to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue on the piano. I just happened to think…. reciting this poem could be a sort of “rhapsody in blue” too, couldn’t it? Anyway, I love your comment and blush at the compliment. Thank you very much!

  13. I love the way your poem was somber and gay at the same time. It sums up human life, a mixture of somber and gay often at the same time. We are all headed in the same direction but for this moment there is a “butternut guitar” 😀

  14. Exquisitely written, Cynthia. And masterful! The imagery, both stark and then with a touch of warmth (hope and humanity) at the end with the butternut guitar. I’ll be coming back to read this a few more times – love it! (Afraid my words are inadequate….)

      • Thanks for understanding my brevity, Cynthia. When I read each poem, it’s like stepping into a unique ray of sun which can be absorbed and felt on many levels. It seems a violation to analyze or critique. Yet that’s what we were taught to do.

        Your poems especially have so many levels and layers – they’re always a delight to experience and resonate with.

        • You touch upon something that I think about quite a lot lately, that is the problem of whether or not to analyze poems in making comments. Analysis is a process of breaking down into parts, a practice in which the ineffable of the whole is very often lost. I have already accused someone, lately of doing autopsies on poems before they’re even dead. 🙂 Not very nice of me, but that’s how frustrated I get with the practice of too much analysis. I recall poetry workshops, many years ago when people would sit around doing this…usually concluding that the poem “works” or doesn’t “work”. Of course it was opinion parading as arcane knowledge, and it put me off poetry for quite a while.

          To people who seriously write poetry, analysis can be helpful. It’s shoptalk, a learning exercise that we all must go through. But it has been taken too far by pseudo-intellectual elites who have critic hearts, and not poet hearts. Especially in recent years when they are all “deconstructing” everything. Maybe they are wannabes and their only hope of understanding is to control. It has turned poetry into something that ordinary people despair of understanding and consequently don’t like, read, or buy. What rewards there are, in publication and reputation are so few, and the number who hanker after them so many, that it becomes a competitive, hustler’s sport.

          Such a long way around responding to your comment, Betty. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I still think the best way is, as you say, to experience a poem. Let it resonate (or not). And if you want to talk about that, fine. If not, that’s okay too. We can only authentically speak of our own experience, and only sometimes. The loop is joined, the circuit made, whenever a reader takes the time to read and especially to enjoy.

  15. Pablo Picasso would be certainly happy to see his painting from 1903 inspiring such wonderful poem 113 years later. He would enjoy your words finding again his sensations when he painted this. .I am very sensitive of that,Cynthia.
    Love ❤
    Michel

    • Thank you, Michel It’s nice to imagine he would like the poem. I was happy to see the original painting when It came to Boston, where I lived many years ago. Although Picasso never forgot Spain, it seems as if he needed Paris, and the French, in order to become a great artist.

  16. Oh I know this painting, the blue man – it’s appropriate for today. Through your words I feel his cold and loneliness hanging heavily weighing down his shoulders, but for the warmth of this guitar – his friend. Amazing how you bring images alive through your pen Cynthia – Happy Monday to you.

    • It’s probably one of the most famous and accessible of Picasso’s paintings, I think. I know it was painted in hard times, yet I always saw that glimmer of warmth that made the guitar—and therefore art—a kind of good thing against all the blues. Thanks, as always, my friend.

  17. Cynthia – I clicked on this post because of the “butternut guitar” and was surprised to see this picture which hangs in my son’s bedroom. So, of course, I had to listen and read. So beautiful! I always felt it was all pain and sadness, that picture. I took it as a commentary on the hard life of a musician – but I loved the little uplifting twist you gave to it.

    • So interesting, Jodie, that it hangs in your son’s bedroom. I loved this painting when I was a young person—maybe even because of the pure sadness that it expresses. It was only recently that it occurred to me how the only non-blue thing was the guitar….maybe saying something about redemption through music or, especially for Picasso, through any of the arts. Thank you so much for stopping by to read and comment!

      • Oh, what a great thought about the redemption of art. Now I want to search around and see if Picasso ever said such a thing about this painting. I do always want to know where the music and art and writing comes from in people and figure out what I can relate to in the artist. Usually it’s a big mix of things and not very easy to explain, I think.

  18. I have never heard of butternut trees, so I was sure you referred to the color of the guitar… A squash… Fragile fingers cannot produce much of a sound out of the strings any more. “Left to suffer”. Isn’t it funny that things can live so much longer than people. Like, a plastic bag can live 1000 years.

    • Actually, I didn’t start out thinking of the trees, but of the color of dye that is made from them…it was used extensively for the uniforms in the US Civil War…”butternut” as a color was more common than “khaki” one of those almost undefinable shades of brownish-yellowish-greenish-grayiish……After I had almost finished working on the poem, the “squash” association struck me, too, but mostly because of the shape of the guitar.

      True about the longevity of things as opposed to people. My home is like a museum of things that once belonged to family and friends now deceased. I’d rather have the people here, than those things.

  19. I am guessing the painting is a real painting by a known artist. Your words make it come alive. I do not understand paintings very much, but your poem made me feel that that is exactly what I would have wished to say about the painting.

    • It’s one of those paintings that are iconic of a certain place (France) and time (early 20th century) in the life of one of Europe’s most famous painters—Pablo Picasso. He became such a watchword in the art world that his name could be substituted for the word “painter”.

      I’ll bet you do indeed understand paintings…even if you are unfamiliar with all the technical words and shoptalk bandied about by people who work in that arena. (I was on the faculty of an art college before I retired and I can attest to the fact that there’s a lot of phony talk about paintings done by people who don’t have a clue, in their guts, as to what a painting is trying to say to a viewer.) At any rate, thank you for reading this poem—which seems a success if it corroborated your feelings about the painting!

  20. I’ve been reading and listening to your reading of this poem. I love the way you seem to be in a conversation with Picasso and also with Wallace Stevens who responded to the same picture. I really like the way that your poem is much more directed towards Picasso’s work than that of Stevens’s. Yes, it is butternut—a beautiful color choice. Another brilliant piece! Thank you so much.

    • I like what you say about the relation of the poem to Picasso’s work. Sometimes a poem begins at the back of the mind a long time earlier than when it’s actually written. I happened upon a tidbit of information about Stevens’s relation to Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” several years ago:

      In a letter dated July 1, 1953, to Professor Renato Poggioli, who had recently translated his poem into Italian, Stevens wrote: “I had no particular painting of Picasso’s in mind [when writing the Man With The Blue Guitar] and even though it might help to sell the book to have one of his paintings on the cover, I don’t think we ought to reproduce anything of Picasso’s.”

      Then why are the painting and poem always linked?….I suddenly noticed the guitar itself was not blue! This set me thinking about how easy it is to accept something as true because we read or are told that it is so. If you google The Man With The Blue Guitar, you get the Stevens poem AND the Picasso painting. This made me want to get rid of the abstraction and really look at the painting, as well as re-read for the umpteenth time the Stevens poem.

      And so occurred this recent poem. I’m so glad you like it, Natalie. Thank you for taking the time to read and listen.

      • How fascinating! When I studied the Stevens’s poem at university, the professor asserted that there was a direct relationship…..perhaps it’s one of those literary rumors that can continue for decades.

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