by Joyce Carol Oates

Page 6

This is in response to Titian's great painting "Narsyas Flayed by Apollo," believed to have been executed between 1570 and the year of Titian's death 1576. The painting, as surely many of you know, is a masterpiece of detail held in a kind of narrative suspension: a hallucinatory work that takes on, by way of the painter's painterly skill, a terrifying domestic inevitability. I wanted this air of casualness for my poem but I wanted very little detail, the merest glimmer of narrative, no figurative language. The poem is in a sense sheerly a formal choice because, before I began thinking about specific words, I had the poem's structure firmly in mind: everything condensed into a stanza of about six or seven lines followed by a short mock- question. The form is a broken or dismantled Shakespearean sonnet but it relates to a genuine Shakespearean sonnet only tangentially; one might say poetically. The poem is about technique--this icy, inhuman precision, its curiously optimistic zeal--and is technique, with nothing human remaining.


In this late, great oil by Titian the satyr
Narsyas is being flayed alive, hanging upside-
down from a tree. What technique is required
we have to guess, skinning a fellow creature alive,
what surgical precision, patience, craftsmanly
pride--the usual secrets
of someone's trade.

Does it require practice, or can it
be done properly the first time?

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