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Cy Twombly’s ‘Poems to the Sea’ (1959)

- Edmund Hardy


[‘Poems to the Sea’ is a set of 24 works in oil, graphite pencil and wax crayon on paper. They have been exhibited as a set in a number of Twombly gallery shows and they’ve also been published as a book: ‘Poems to the Sea’, 1990, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag.]

Beyond the incertitude of unraveling inscription, the haptic smears of white and the traces of perception (or reason) making itself, this set of poem-paintings is also a double record of annulment. Twombly had started to  read Mallarmé in 1957, the same year he made a statement on ‘whiteness’ much quoted in Twombly criticism: “Whiteness can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-Romantic area of remembrance – or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé.” [1] Six years earlier, Charles Olson ‘s Twombly essay contained a hopeful question: “Take it flatly, a plane. On it, how can a man throw his shadow, make this the illumination of his experience, how put his weight exactly – there?”

The question echoes a parenthesis in Mallarmé’s ‘A la nue accablante tu...’, “Quel sepulchral naufrage (tu / Le sais, écume, mais y baves)” [2] – whether the thrown liquid is shadow or spray, now it simply drivels, scribbles or smudges there, though it is itself a fluid record or silent remembrance. In Twombly’s ‘Poems to the Sea’ (sheets 9, 10, 15 and 16), bursts of furiously dark scribble cross out, but not as Mallarmé’s ship has been crossed out by the sea and left as a wreck [3] – Twombly’s are the strokes of annulment  only, with no trace of what has been cancelled or struck. This point of vanishing is echoed by the marks and smears of semi translucent paint, idealization’s bluff.

That the finite and infinite are inseparable is perceived as light shades into peripheries, as objects lose their edges, as the limit comes round endlessly: if, in the transferable restlessness of possible appropriations, the ‘Poems to the Sea’ seem for a moment to stage sublation’s engine of appearance-disappearance, other thoughts also arrest perception: What is this white which finds it so hard to find whiteness, an image of this self which cannot find itself, or which is effaced upon reflection? This is translation, these are the paths which electively pattern or convey [4], but written across them there is a second form of thrown shadow. The rows of numbers from 1 to 9 (sheets 9, 10, 19, 20, 21) in conjunction with the clusters of ‘counting marks’ bounce beyond the double record of annulment towards a horizon of counts without syllables or lines – the wind’s feet on the sea or a set of diagonals moving from integers to objects and back, from wholes to running totals.

The countable makes passage in the vaguely discerned; lines move through themselves; each view is that of a field staring back, such that each look is a passage of and through the sequence, which renews its record and our unfounded sense, though both , upon turning away, are left dribbling there.



[1] L’Esperienza moderna 1957, p 32

[2] My translation:
“What sepulchral wreck (you / Know, spume, but only dribble there)”

[3] See Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject (translated by Bruno Bosteels, Continuum, 2009), page 94, for a discussion of crossed out terms in the poetry of Mallarmé.

[4] Allen Fisher: “[...] a chreodic and semiotic connectedness that patterns. Twombly's work is not a conflict of muscular mnemonics and referentiality, but a decided upon aesthetic dimension.” (‘The Crowd: momentum, energy and the work of Cy Twombly’, published on the North American Center for Interdisciplinary Poetics website).


Some of Cy Twombly’s ‘Poems to the Sea’ can be found online, for example in Kate Nesin’s essay ‘Some Notes on Words and Things in Cy Twombly’s Sculptural Practice’ available on the Tate website ( [figures 10 & 11]

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