‘Cezanne’s Ports’ by Allen Ginsberg

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.

But that meeting place
isn’t represented;
it doesn’t occur on the canvas.

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.

And the immense water of L’Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats.

This poem is about a painting by Cezanne called ‘The Gulf of Marseilles seen from L’Estaque’. You can see the painting below.

I think Cezanne’s Ports is a fascinating poem. Ginsberg fascinates (and often troubles) me anyway, but here I love how he finds such a poignant significance to this beautiful painting — significance that I admit I would not have found myself without nudging.

So, the poet starts by talking about the foreground of the painting, and describes it as “time and life/ swept in a race/ toward the left hand side of the picture.” I love this description, because there is a sense of the bustle of triviality (which I certainly get from the sand-coloured puzzle of roofs), and how it is always on its way to “Heaven and Eternity” (which the poet next tells us is represented by the far grey shore of hills, with their “bleak white haze”.)

The “meeting place”, where “shore meets shore”, is not represented in the painting; it “does not occur on the canvas.” Why does it not occur in the picture? Is it because “Heaven and Eternity” are impossible to depict in art? Because they are impossible to comprehend in life?

In the final verse, Ginsberg talks about the sea — the “immense water of L’Estaque” — as a “go-between/for minute rowboats.” I like the curt manner of this ending because it amplifies the sweetness and triviality of the tiny rowboats (I think the term “rowboat” is significant because he is using an almost childish word to describe the boats, and of course “minute” ensures that we visualise them in a certain way.)

For me, these little rowboats represent our human efforts to understand the divine — our attempts to understand “Heaven and Eternity” in life. These attempts are not futile, but they are perhaps, as I said before, sweet and trivial, when you consider how the whole of the foreground is being inescapably “swept” towards the left of the painting, and Heaven. Ginsberg was a Buddhist for much of his life, and I think that this may have influenced this poem a great deal.

P.S. Ginsberg was also greatly influenced by Blake and Whitman. From Whitman, in particular, he inherited his love of free verse, and his long lines that are ‘single breath units’. I love this style, and I would like to share with you some enlightening extracts from “When the Mode of Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake”, which Ginsberg wrote in 1961:

“one must verge on the unknown, write toward truth hitherto unrecognisable of one’s own sincerity, including the avoidable beauty of doom, shame and embarrassment, that very area of self-recognition (detailed individual is universal remember)”

“For if we write with an eye to what the poem should be (has been), and do not get lost in it, we will never discover anything new about ourselves in the process of actually writing on the table, and we lose the chance to live in our works, & make habitable the new world which every man may discover in himself, if he lives — which is life itself, past present & future”

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

I think that final quotation is true and beautiful, and I also think the influences of Blake, and Buddhism are very evident there.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh