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Introducing The Rothko

A New Poetic Form Invented by Bob Holman


I was married to a painter — but except for Van Gogh, whose paintings move, I never got painting. They seemed so stuck on the wall. Poems, you know, you could haul right off the page and set into motion, Wendy sewing Peter’s shadow onto his shoe tips.

That all changed when Alice Notley assigned her St. Mark’s Poetry Project workshop to visit a Willem DeKooning show at a small gallery uptown and to stand in front of the paintings until we were inspired to write poetry. It took me hours, but I made it through the painting into the poem, and I’ve been able to read paintings ever since.

Mark Rothko’s one of those painters who, if you don’t stop, stop, stop, look, look and listen, can sail right by. The luminous lift-off only occurs via relaxed eyes and nonbeingness float. When I visited the incredible Rothko retrospective at the National Gallery in DC, I was struck by the linear nature of his color bombs: it was like they were all (mainly) three lines, call ‘em haikus. Naw, call ‘em Rothkos, I thought, and make ‘em rectangles like the paintings. And get those colors in there while you’re at it, like a tic-tac-toe, and now you gotta ROTHKO!

How to Write a Rothko

  1. A Rothko (poem) can only be written while standing in front of a Rothko (painting).
  2. A Rothko is three lines, three words per line.
  3. Three of these nine words must be colors, and their position in the poem must be a tic-tac-toe.
  4. Like all rules of poetry, break at your own risk.

See Bob Holman’s Rothkos, then look at some Rothko paintings and write your own!

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