This poem is a commission. It was commissioned by the Tate Gallery in connection with a competition they were running - I was one of the judges - and the subject had to be either a particular painting or work of art in the Tate or the gallery itself in general. And they asked the judges to write a poem on the same theme together with those by the prize-winners and they were all to be included in an anthology. So I decided to write about something I had often felt about art galleries, that when you come out your vision is different, you see things differently from when you went in. I called it 'Leaving the Tate'.
Leaving the Tate
Coming out with your clutch of postcards
in a Tate Gallery bag and another clutch
of images packed into your head you pause
on the steps to look across the river
and there’s a new one: light bright buildings,
a streak of brown water, and such a sky
you wonder who painted it – Constable? No:
too brilliant. Crome? No: too ecstatic –
a madly pure Pre-Raphaelite sky,
perhaps, sheer blue apart from the white plumes
rushing up it (today, that is,
April. Another day would be different
but it wouldn’t matter. All skies work.)
Cut to the lower right for a detail:
seagulls pecking on mud, below
two office blocks and a Georgian terrace.
Now swing to the left, and take in plane trees
bobbled with seeds, and that brick building,
and a red bus… Cut it off just there,
by the lamp-post. Leave the scaffolding in.
That’s your next one. Curious how
these outdoor pictures didn’t exist
before you’d looked at the indoor pictures,
the ones on the walls. But here they are now,
marching out of their panorama
and queuing up for the viewfinder
your eye’s become. You can isolate them
by holding your optic muscles still.
You can zoom in on figure studies
(that boy with the rucksack), or still lives,
abstracts, townscapes. No one made them.
The light painted them. You’re in charge
of the hanging committee. Put what space
you like around the ones you fix on,
and gloat. Art multiplies itself.
Art’s whatever you choose to frame.
It wasn’t until I got to the end of that poem that I realised I thought “art’s whatever you choose to frame”. I hadn’t been deliberately leading up to it but somehow it arose out of what had gone before, slightly to my surprise.
from Poems 1960-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2000), copyright Fleur Adcock 2000, used by permission of the author