Let’s say that art induces a response of contemplation, and that this contemplation may be sensual, aesthetic, spiritual, intellectual, so on. I think that imagination can also be a kind of contemplation. An ekphrastic, to me, is an imaginative response to a work of art.
I’ve been writing quite a few ekphrastics lately, mainly in conversation — if you will — with Goya, but also Seurat and Varo. I’ve tried it before, but never as extensively or as seriously as this. So, after the fact, I’ve been thinking about how they work, or at least, how I’ve been working with this concept.
The biggest challenge I face when I’m writing an ekphrastic is with the idea that the poem must stand on its own. This idea may be accepted, rejected or changed, depending on one’s theoretical standpoint. But I have a practical concern and it has to do with reading — I mean reading for pleasure — : if I cannot access a poem without foreknowledge of something else, then I don’t want to read the poem. If I can do one good reading of the poem alone, then I’m ready to go hunting for whatever may enrich the intial reading.
This isn’t so much a problem for when I’m reading than it is for when I’m writing: I don’t want to commit the same crime I can’t bear in other people’s poems.
It seems to me that ekphrastic poetry functions on the paradox that it has to simultaneously be complete on its own and also have a dynamic relationship with its source — a relationship that enriches, if not both the source and poem, enriches at least the poem.
This also brings me more practical concerns: if the poem is a response to, say, a painting, is the poem obliged to describe or otherwise conjure up an image of the painting? To what extent?
One of the earliest ekphrastics I remember reading is Moniza Alvi’s ‘I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro.’ It’s a poem I like a little less with time, but only because tastes are bound to change. I still admire this poem. One of the reasons is: when I first read it, I had no idea who Miro was or what his paintings could be like; but the poem immediately gave me a sense of what to expect, and that was more than enough to sustain my first reading. This is something all ekphrastics should be capable of, without having to say, ‘The painting is square. The sky is very blue. There are cows sleeping by a tree.’
If Alvi suggests what might actually be present in the painting (or an imaginary painting by Miro, based on elements he often uses — I’ve never been sure if she was responding to a specific work or his general aesthetic), it is only in relation to what the speaker in the poem — the dot — is thinking and wishing. We have a sense of how the objects relate to each other physically in the dimensions of the canvas, and a brief sense of the colours. This vague impression of the painting allows the poem to be autonomous, if the reader so chooses. It’s no wonder, then, that this poem appears in so many creative writing lessons plans (google ekphrasis and see what you will find).
The question that is adjacent to this, is whether an ekphrastic poem can be content with only describing. In ‘Conventions of Ekphrasis,’ Calamity Jane writes:
Sometimes used interchangeably, ekphrasis usually includes, but is not limited to, the use of enargia. The term comes from classical rhetoric. It means to make the object lively appear before the reader’s eye. This usually happens through careful recreation of the visual artifact through verbal means, such as detailed description, use of sensory information, imagery, etc… In other words, so ekphrasis will also attempt to visually reproduce the art object for the reader so that the reader can experience the same arresting effect as the poet. This, of course, works to varying degrees of success. Some refer to this as “painterly” poetry, and this is precisely the kind of work that lies at the heart of Lessing’s treatise. Lessing saw it as poetry’s attempt to mimic the visual arts.
It makes me curious to know why enargia ‘works to varying degrees of success.’ Maybe the key word is ‘lively.’ Maybe that is where the imagination comes in.
In my recent ekphrastics I’ve usually situated the ‘I’ within the frame of the painting and taken liberties with the characters, and possibly ignored the intent of the work. Sometimes the ‘I’ jumps around within the painting, or jumps out of it. It’s hard to say how much of this energy I will appreciate in a month’s time, but this idea is obsessing me — the idea of the things in the painting studying themselves or each other as works of art. It was an unconscious obsession at first, now less so.
I’m very interested to know about your experience with ekphrastics — reading them, writing them, but especially reading and writing them. This could be a support group for those who have written, are writing, want to write ekphrastics. Or better still, an opportunity for intelligent exchange.
Do, also, share your ekphrastic poems that you like and/or that you’ve written. Here are two of mine:
If you were a bird (2007)
………….on Pablo Picasso’s L’enfant au pigeon
You are calm as a dove held to the chest
of a child. Caged in bones, you may be
her heart. You pulse where her fingers fold
around your body – they are pink
as arteries carrying a flush to her lips.
She watches your beak as if afraid
that you will pluck at something delicate
like the dress she wears. Blue dye spreads
from her clothes onto your feathers
so that she might be wearing you
on her sleeve.
Sometimes you are afraid
that she will let you out into the night:
there is a brightly coloured ball in the field
that perhaps she will pick up to play,
and if she does, where will you go, blue dove,
after beating your wings for so long
in the warm hold of her hands?
Heh, rather pretty stuff.