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Stan Cohen in his study. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

Art Poems

by Stan Cohen

As a self-diagnosed artaholic (though others who know me would probably agree), I become mesmerized by things that dazzle my eye and absorb my brain, especially when both happen. And sometimes, even more when I can talk with the actual person who made that dazzling, absorbing thing and we can talk about it and its relationship with the world. And then all of these tangents explode so that I have to write some of my thoughts down, doing so in poetic terms when I can, because the rhythms and beauty of language parallel and intersect that visual and conceptual framework and because my fingers extend from my brain onto the page, so that the words and lines take their own form. 

I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to work with several wonderful artists to create work together, responding to each other, combining my words with their images, sharing the process. Glenn Goldberg started the process and did a set of pouchoirs, each with two elements to accompany my first volume of poetry, which were two columned poems, to be read by two individuals in harmony or sequence. He designed the cover as well without any markings so that the reader had to explore inside to see what was there.  Gary Stephan French-folded drawings into the book so that his art appeared in and around the text of multicolumned poems. He played with the text as well and then designed the cover so that the ink would intentionally wear away as people read the book, so it would have an organic feel. Ed Ruscha then laid a number of wordless drawings in a volume of poems where I tried to invert that paradigm and create minimalist poems, paring down to a few lines or a few words. I also worked with Robin Bernat on a series of six prints with her etchings at the top and my poems beneath, printing those ourselves in her studio. 

I’ve done a series of three line poems that sit in the place of the typical advertisements that sit on the bottom of wooden rulers or yardsticks. I called those Measured Words and Twisted Words when I bent the wood into different angles. A totally fun project. I issued them in an edition of 14.28 along with Artist Proofs that were numbered so they had some relationship to pi.

I continue to write, though that is often impeded by my real job, finding that crafting a great sentence or stanza sometimes feels like I’ve inhaled the world and exhaled  joy.


All photos by Deanna Sirlin, unless otherwise noted. 
Clockwise, from upper left: 

Stan Cohen with Phil Auslander
Measured Words by Stan Cohen
Stan Cohen 
Genevieve Arnold. Photo: Joe Massey 
African masks in Stan Cohen's office 
Kiki Smith, Pieta, 1999. Collection and photo: Whitney Museum of American Art.
Two, a book by Stan Cohen and Glenn Goldberg, published by Steam Press in 1991.
Stan Cohen.

To hear Stan Cohen read his poems, please click on the players that appear above the texts of the poems.


You always used your right hand

to push your grayed hair

back up and into place, 

place being important,

an identified location

whether in your kitchen 

preparing for fifty guests, 

or studio-sequestered,

or on your careful canvases

that graphed India and Egypt,

at least the corner you saw, 

at least what your right hand

said you did, noting its place,

now growing used to eternity

lying at your side.

7 April 2006

(read by Stan Cohen and Phil Auslander)


Empty spaces must be created
to sit
within well lit walls                       paper images pinned
                                 on a floor filled                                         reexamined
by abandoned cans and then replaced
of petrified paint approaching another
                                  angled brushes       not like it's the only truth
equally abandoned art
stacked, still challenging just another
but no longer the chalice to put up on the wall
to carry today's blood


for Jamie and Kiki

The long haired girl poses 

on a shelf, pale as a ghost

stroking her lost cat, their

grey noses must be wet 

if they are some bleeding 

marble Marys. 

She presses cat to heart,

whispers his name

stating her innocence,

recognizing his as if 

he is all innocence,

as if she was as well

until loss broke the spell

and now nothing rhymes.

April 28, 2006


I misread the date,

got Saturdays switched

and lost the latest

Armory show 

presenting art I’d want

but shouldn’t,

consigning dollars

to my retirement

instead of renting

another painting,

sculpture, drawing

for a single lifetime

resting my eyes

feeding the family

rather be reversed,

misreading the date

saving shoe leather,

though I now mostly

wear rubber soles.

21 - 22 May 2005


First the lines and rules were rigid,

a midpoint to somewhere,

a calm corner to another where;

then they widened, gained heft,

as they absorbed a decade,

and angled or began an arc,

defining shape as if it were form;

two dimensions filling three; 

the edges often enough, capturing 

air in endless cages; counting sides

in an explosion of metered geos,

teaching multiplication to aesthetics,

subtracting all unnecessary else.

Then suddenly letting the lines tangle, 

weave and waver, insisting the forms 

soften as if they were Oldenburgs,

fighting time to see how other well 

they can move majestically, how 

color can become socks and slide on,

bold and brightened, or scrubbed into 

walls; turning never twisting, defining

itself until each piece becomes its own 

catalogue raisonne.

31 May 2005


The African masks were faked, I know

At least now, the patina wrong,

The wood still too heavy—the hands 

That carved them generations younger

Than those that fashioned a unique prayer

In greener wood that saw real use.

Now they are expensive souvenirs masking 

Whole industries and too simple plots.

They hide what I do not wish to.

I will dance to well drummed rhythms

Without a wooden face, opening

My own smile and whole heart

In exchange for yours, knowing

I get the better part of the deal. 

Glenn’s drawings    poems

The curtain is being pulled back 

or rather, it was, gradually

as we arrived, revealing

deception and despair, 

Mother Courage drawing her wagon,

the audience attentive, always waiting                           

Trees are only a veil

shadowing the landscape

pulling the low sun into earth

shielding both from each other

parting God’s waters 

sucking them for sap

The open air crowds itself

with too empty breath, unless

we follow the good, grey Walt

singing where the road descends

and scrambles round the hills

then up the forever steep grade

Words sit well on paper

while landscapes tie us in

convincing us of climate

consoling tired eyes of choice            

and perspective, promising

summer will soon follow fall.


For Sid Chafetz

Eyes intent, moving rapidly, 

(matching, alternating with 

 the speed of his hands)

 narrowed into a squint,

then down, back behind

the angled canvas to replace

his sitter’s soft, supple reality

with uncompromised  image

locked into time, ten thousand 

impressions working

amongst themselves, 


they are only one—the one

that will stare back endlessly

perpetuating the argument.

May 24, 2003


for Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid 

Death circumscribes that loop of life 

provides its meaning, so this poem 

declares, without a question mark 

appended, adopting some theosophical 

bullshit as if a wine must be drunk 

simply because the bottle must empty, 

and this poem must encompass all others

because its pluperfect truth is that simple.

Nay, the naysayer must say.

Life is its own reward; passion and giving  

its untimely base, replacing clocks and 

calendars with semblances of love,

defined in any hundred ways, all 

gathering and gathering, finally releasing

with smiles and similes, as if, as if

having is better than halving--until it isn’t;

as if things possessed don’t reverse all roles 

over time, Ozymandius; as if a single canvas 

can contain everyone’s favorite painting; as if 

elephants should paint rather than dance

and I should bow reverently to yesterday’s

truths while I await tomorrow’s.


                  For Ed Ruscha

How we contort words

Or couple them to images

   Vague mists rising from debris, 

   Anecdotes seeking a fulcrum

   From their inheritance

   Into airless bell jars,

Signifiers cascading from memories,

Trying to snag real answers

Before they evaporate 

Are we reconstructing Indians

By drawing their vanished tents

   Remembering they too died in Viet Nam

   And on the highways to suburbia

   Or in darkened houses there

Feb 26, 1989



quietly and with caution

hands handed to each other         

scapulae touching

as much as lips

with fresh eyes open

in those twenties                  

respectful, grateful

for frames and pedestals

to say, "This is Art,"

with what we ask 

worth the minutes

of your eyes and feet,             

the time you ignored

the metaphors of paint

and light put on canvas

to illumine you

for the centuries

and the nameless 

gods that have eaten them

swaggered fallibly

despite years in their bellies

Not knowing

even the questions 

the artist asks, but

conceivably answers,

the words are formed

the same way as the world

and image before

wanting, expecting

knowledge to ascend

with all the Jesuses

that have risen

in a hundred flesh tones

with silence and awe

for place and presence ended

as if the antecedents

and accomplishments

could now be understood

combined in meaningful

order so that you / we

can walk among gods

and measure some part

of your / their movement.

To sanctu 

sanctorum, beyond

artificial walls of

this month's exhibition

to the vaults of

an eternity vanished

and held like my own

renewed, reviewed

under the guise of

a painting that restates

some fractioned truth

in less than monumental

passages, but monumental

enough to acquire

and allow vision

of the hidden offices

that reverse questions

now asked of us

such that we pretend

our answers may be theirs

chronicled and perhaps

worth retelling.  

April 1995

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