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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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Chapter 1 George and Surfaces


Chapter 1

George and Surfaces

Words are solid, they are not ghosts or pointers. The poet connects, arranges, defines, things: pearls and eyes; garlic, sapphires, and mud.1

Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?2

The poet as a connecter, an arranger, a definer of words: it is Ezra Pound that Kenner is describing, yet in the solidity and thinglikeness of his words, and particularly in the pearls and sapphires, we might recognise, too, the early Stefan George in this description.3 In the introduction we saw how Eisenstein described the task of the director as the conscious arranging of coloured images, ordered in such a way that a cumulative sense of a colour’s meaning could be communicated to a viewer. Only through careful juxtaposition could colour successfully carry a unitary semantic charge. And only through careful juxtaposition of coloured things – claims Ezra←41 | 42→ Pound, in his explication of the Chinese ideogram – can we communicate the concept of colour:

But when the Chinaman wanted to make a picture of something more complicated, or of a general idea, how did...

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