EKPHRASTIC Editorial: Poetry that Sees

By and | 1 March 2017

Ekphrasis in the last 100 years

Ekphrasis has been a powerful driver of 20th- and 21st-century poetries. Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux observes that 20th-century poets wrote ekphrastic poems in such numbers that ‘If the record of ekphrastic production can be a measure, images are more urgent [for poets] in the twentieth century than ever before’ (2010: 2).1

There are myriad well-known examples of 20th-century ekphrastic poetry, including poems that represent some of the best of their authors’ work: Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, Anne Sexton’s ‘The Starry Night’, Marianne Moore’s ‘No Swan so Fine’, John Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ and W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, describing and re-inscribing Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. In this poem a man falls from the sky, ‘the white legs disappearing into the green / Water’ (1991: 179). This same painting is re-imagined by William Carlos Williams in a poem with the same title as the painting: ‘it was spring // a farmer was ploughing / his field / the whole pageantry // of the year was / awake tingling / near // the edge of the sea / concerned / with itself // sweating in the sun’ (1985: 238)

Art Berman understands the cross-over between poets and visual artists since the rise of Modernism as an expression of the idea that ‘the visual can provide direct and even prelinguistic knowledge, since the psyche presumably has operations that precede or take logical precedence over the formation of language’ (1994: 49). Rebecca Beasley notes that during the early 20th century, ‘speculations about the representational power of language were widespread’ (2007: 52) and Loizeaux writes that “The twentieth century’s various pan-arts avant-gardes and their multidisciplinary manifestos (Dada, vorticism, futurism, surrealism) speak to this energising banding together [of artists and poets]’ (2010: 2-3).

Sometimes Modernist poets even tried to capture the effect of a painting or an exhibition directly, as in the following poem by Ezra Pound:

L’Art 1910

Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes. (1952: 124)

In formulating their ideas for the Imagist movement early in the 20th century Pound and other poets looked to examples from different artforms, including Japanese prints and visual art more generally, and musical compositions, to make an argument for a new form of writing. Pound asserted in 1913 that:

By good art I mean art that bears true witness, I mean the art that is most precise. You can be wholly precise in representing a vagueness … If you cannot understand this with regard to poetry, consider the matter in terms of painting. (2011: 162).

Pound was also significantly influenced by Ernest Fenollosa’s idiosyncratic ideas about the pictorial qualities of the Chinese language which he believed – as Michael Alexander expresses it – was ‘by its very nature more concrete and poetic than alphabetic writing: reading the character for sunset, the Chinese actually sees the descending sun tangled in a tree’s branches’ (1981: 98):

It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds. It is, in some sense, more objective than either, more dramatic. In reading Chinese we do not seem to be juggling mental counters, but to be watching things work out their own fate. (Fenollosa and Pound 2008: 45; emphasis original)

Further, Pound had a powerful interest in imagistic Japanese verse forms, such as the Haiku, which resulted in his two-lined poem ‘In a Station Of the Metro’. He even printed early versions of this poem with spaces between its key phrases and words, emphasising the extent to which he conceived of this poem in pictorial terms. Pound said of the making of this work:

That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of ‘non-representative’ painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour. (1914: 465; emphasis original)

Since the early 20th century, and continuing into the 21st century, the the tendency to associate poetry with visual imagery remains so prevalent that Peter Jones’s comment from the 1970s remains equally true today: ‘imagistic ideas still lie at the centre of our poetic practice’ (1976: 14). The powerful influence of William Carlos Williams’s imagistic poetry – in works such as ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (Williams 1985: 56) – is hard to overstate and American poets such as James Wright and Robert Bly re-energised and re-inflected imagism in the second half of the 20th century through their interest in what they called the ‘Deep Image’. Imagism in its various influences and offshoots has been so influential, and so closely connected to the visual arts, that a great deal of 21st-century poetry is not only imagistic but ekphrastic in tendency, even when it is not specifically ekphrastic according to the contemporary understanding of that term.

  1. This part of our discussion draws on Paul Hetherington and Anita Fitton 2013 ‘Spectral Resemblances and Elusive Connections: a practice-led research dialogue between poetry and digital imagery’, the American, British and Canadian Studies Journal, special issue: Creative Writing: New Signals, New Territories, Volume 20, Issue 1, August 2013, 17–38
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