Ekphrasis as ‘Event’: Poets Paint Words and the ‘Performance’ of Ekphrasis in Australia

By | 1 March 2017

A non-representational painting such as John Olsen’s Life Burst (1964) sprawls across five one-meter canvases, exploding with rapturous swirls of vivid colour as his trademark lines like clotted capillaries suggest primitive figurations. Yet, my description does not come close to evoking the sensory or intellectual experience of being in the presence of the painting itself – it (and any other attempt) fails the non-representational artwork as a piece of verbal ‘translation’. Murray Kreiger contended that the fundamental principle of ekphrasis was to ‘freeze’ the temporal narrative of the poem in the spatial mode of the artwork (Krieger 5). It is easy to see how this approach fits within the descriptive framework of ekphrasis as ut pictura poeisis1; by creating a poem that achieves a spatial equivalence by ‘translating’ the subjects or objects from the painting. In notional ekphrasis, the verbal description of the object is fundamental because it is all that exists. Contemporary actual ekphrastic writing reinterprets this use of ut pictura poeisis not as description, but as a way of informing the ‘textual features of the poem’ – the ‘pacing, fragmentation, sound and rhythm and imaginative ‘visual’ associations that occur’ (Freiman 6).

Therefore, in Poets Paint Words presenting the text of the poems alongside the painting negates the descriptive imperative. The event replaces the descriptive drive with a connotative drive. This manifests through linking the sensory and the procedural agency of the poet and highlights their craft. It alludes to the personal event, the active viewing of the painting, as the moment where the contemplation and ‘performance’ of the poem is enacted. The descriptive tradition of ekphrasis omits what is arguably the most important factor in a contemporary ekphrasis: the process of the poet.

Fiona Harari’s article in the Weekend Australian Magazine, provides the following account of Kate Fagan’s process in Poets Paint Words 1:

Teamed with Trees by Grace Cossington Smith, whose work she has long admired, Fagan found the process of writing about such a vibrant piece of art to be unlike the writing of any other poem she has produced. ‘I have certainly not walked into a room before with an object and been asked to build that relationship,’ says Fagan, 34. After reading up on the artist’s life and scanning some of her old, handwritten letters, Fagan went through twelve drafts before settling on her final wording. ‘I loved it, I really did,’ she says of the experience. ‘When I walked into the room with the painting, it was literally humming with life and colour.’ (Harari 28)

Fagan’s use of the term ‘relationship’ suggests a similar schematisation of the contemporary ekphrastic mode set out by Cole Swensen in her essay To Writewithize, that invokes

works that don’t look at art so much as live with it. The principle difference here is not the verb but the preposition. A side-by-side, a walking-along-with, replaces the face-to-face relationship, the two – the poem and the artwork are presumed to be going in the same direction and at the same speed; they are fellow travelers sharing the same context. (Swensen 70)

This ‘shared context’ in the event of Poets Paint Words, as commissioned ekphrasis simultaneously presented, provides the dynamic between poem and painting that Fagan and other poets achieved in the exhibition: a walking-along-with. Rather than simply deferring to the intentional disposition of another agent in an attempt to attain correctness or perfection, Pardlo reiterates the importance of the ‘encounter’: the poet taking ownership of their own experience and intimating this in the poem (587).

Acknowledging the importance of process in this contemporary mode, I offer the following to address the role of the ekphrastic poet: ekphrasis ought to be considered as a balance between originality and accurate reference – that the poet might be able to make an appropriately original piece of work that maintains sufficient and observable ties with the reference. For the poem and artwork to be read / viewed in conjunction with one another, there must be some discernible link between the reference and the referent and some weighing up of the poet’s encounter with the artwork against the artist’s intentions.

Fagan’s statement reveals two of these essential properties of ekphrastic process: awareness of sensory cues that are present in the viewing and research into relevant contextual information about the work’s production. Consider Ivy Ireland’s poem from Poets Paint Words 2:

What We Do for Survival

Green was first when the extant set out to condense itself down.
Then cinnabar: capillaries of fire and endlessness,
a nest of triangles, symbols of the Three Principles – 
the Great Heart of some elapsed thing.

The only world we can cope with 
is this shopping list of perceptions:
Round bottomed flask,
orphic egg, Aurora Borealis, lung sack,
runes in cubes seeming to square the circle,
Tetragrammaton in a cyclic continuum
trailing off the canvas, off this Perspex page. 

Consciousness is not the only node
responding to this inoculation of meaning – 
the body catches flame, also.
Electrical signals smelt biology and chemistry
from shamanism and alchemy
distill human genome research from arcane pixels,
coagulate white noise with all this green-black rapid change.

What lies beneath this ladder of coercion
is still beneath;
scumble-over it as we will,
set it free though we may.

The second stanza reveals much about the sensory experience of viewing a painting for the first time, as Ireland addresses the associative forms as they appear to her in viewing Jon Cattapan’s Body Chart (1995). Recall that for Fagan it is the painting ‘literally humming with life and colour’ that she takes note of immediately. Certainly, the poet has a responsibility to account for the material / sensory resonance that the painting can generate, because their role as an active viewer requires them to go through the same interpretive process as any other viewer of the painting. In this mode of contemporary ekphrasis, where the audience can cross-reference poem and painting, an effective poet will attempt to engage the audience in the associations that they relay through the poem.

Ireland’s ‘shopping list of perceptions’ suggest the fraught nature of the personal ekphrastic event being beholden to the deadline of the exhibition opening. Having caught the train to Newcastle to view Life Burst, Jill Jones recounts that given the time constraints, her first impulse was to write down her sensory associations in the hope that these might spark a line that would eventually find its way into the poem (pers. comm.). Freiman labels these ‘affect responses’:

Affect responses triggered by ‘seeing’ in any instance are subjective, differentiated and specific to the moment of the response – here seeing an artwork (bringing to this action everything else that is going on in the writer writing) and responding to its content, form, energy, colour and materiality. (Frieman 6)

It is possible to conceive of this first stage of the ekphrastic process in Frieman’s terms, as seeing; noting that the material state of the painting, it’s visceral impact on the poet, is strongest as the poet attempts to forge a new relationship based upon visual sensory cues.

  1. from Horace’s Ars Poetica – ‘as in painting, so in poetry.’
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