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Reading Colour

George, Rilke, Kandinsky, Lasker-Schüler


Rey Conquer

Colour is a problem for poetry, where – unlike in painting, sculpture or film – it
is marked by its absence. This absence raises questions that have often been
overlooked in the study of colour: how do writers navigate the invisibility of
colour in text? What aesthetic commitments do certain attitudes to colour
expose? And how, in the face of its absence, do we read colour?

This ambitious and exciting study addresses these questions, analysing the
use of colour language in the work of Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke,
Wassily Kandinsky and Else Lasker-Schüler to tease out how these poets
understood poetic production, and how they negotiated the relations between
poem, reader and world. Covering the poetry, prose, translation, literary and art
criticism and theory of these and other writers central to European literature
at the turn of the twentieth century, Reading Colour sheds new light on poetic
practice of the period, but also uses colour to open up an understanding of
how poetic language works, and to ask how we read poetry.

This book was the winner of the 2018 Early Career Researcher Prize in German
Studies, a collaboration between the Institute for German Studies at the
University of Birmingham and Peter Lang.

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The central, and most obvious, problem that colour poses for literature – whether for those writing it or those reading – is that it is not there. While there is a history of contention regarding colour and line or form in art, painted or drawn marks always have a colour; poetry, certainly when read aloud, doesn’t. The invisibility of textual colour is precisely why it is worth studying: the work of the historian Michel Pastoureau on the history of colour, and colours, takes as its starting point the fact that ‘[a]ny description, any notation of color is cultural and ideological […]. The very fact of mentioning or not mentioning the color of an object was quite a significant choice reflecting the economic, political, social, or symbolic stakes relevant to a specific context’.1 It is not only what colour a thing, in a written text, is given that is significant; it is that its colour is given at all.

Why do poets use colour? Perhaps because it is here, in negotiating this absence, feeling around the edges of what cannot be put on the page, that they allow us to see most clearly what can be. Colour points to the gaps between different kinds of making, between different ways of mediating or manufacturing experience. It is for this reason that poetry is often opposed to the visual arts, both by its makers and by critics such as Jacques Le Rider, who writes, ‘when faced with colour, language experiences its...

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