EKPHRASTIC Editorial: Poetry that Sees

By and | 1 March 2017

Defining contemporary ekphrasis

There is no contemporary consensus about how best to define or understand ekphrasis. James A W Heffernan’s definition is broad but perhaps the most cited: ‘ekphrasis is the verbal representation of visual representation (1993: 3; emphasis original). Jane Heffernan et. al, state that ‘Ekphrasis, the act of speaking to, about, or for a work of visual or plastic art’ and focuses on whether ‘women poets bring a particular set of motives and intentions to their ekphrastic encounters’ (2009: 15), a very interesting question that deserves further discussion. David Kennedy argues, ‘Ekphrasis is not … so much a matter of paragonal struggle between word and image as an attempt to bring art into the realm of our contingency’ (2012: 3), while John Hollander emphasises, ‘the problematic feature of poetic ekphrasis: its strangeness lies as much in what it does not notice as in what it singles out as points for interpretation’ (1988: 6).

Interestingly, Simon Goldhill takes things back to basics by focusing on ‘what ekphrasis is for’ rather than ‘what it means’ (2007: 1) which complements Ruth Webb’s complex arguments concerning the network of interlocking questions and interests that ekphrasis evokes: ‘from the positivist pursuit of lost monuments described in ancient and medieval ekphrasis to the poststructuralist fascination with a textual fragment which declares itself to be pure artifice, the representation of representation’ (1999: 1). Peter Barry emphasises a ‘certain skeptical quizzicality about poetic procedures [that] is both embodied in, and provoked by, the ekphrastic process, which may account for its current popularity’ (2002: 160).

Ruth Webb advocates for the importance of notional ekphrasis as a significant trope within the genre, and this is a term that usually refers to poems that conjure a work, or works, of art imagined by the poet. Such poems are doubly creative. They imagine and ‘create’ in words one or more works of visual art and also, and simultaneously, imagine and create a poem. Perhaps the most famous English-language examples of such poetic works are Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’. These poems inhabit a tradition that is as old as ekphrasis itself because, as John Hollander points out, ‘The earliest ekphrastic poetry describes what doesn’t exist, save in the poetry’s own fiction’ (1988: 209). He adds that:

it is the tradition of notional ekphrasis which provides the paradigms and the precursor texts, the rhetorical models and the interpretive strategies, for the fully developed modern ekphrastic poem. Notional ekphrasis inheres in modern poetry’s actual ekphrasis, and provides a thematic microcosm of a basic paradox about poetry and truth. (1988: 209)

This issue of Cordite Poetry Review: call and response

As mentioned, one of the 20th century’s most well-known ekphrastic works is W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, beginning ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters’ (1991: 179). The poem approaches Pieter Breughel’s painting, The Fall of Icarus in a kind of three-way dialogue between poet, painting and reader: ‘In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster’ (179). Auden presents the famous painting’s details accurately enough, but the point of his poem is not merely to evoke Breughel’s work. Rather, he uses the painting as a point of departure for reflecting on issues of suffering and loss more generally.

This is a way of introducing a key point about the poems in this ekphrastic issue. As editors, we looked for poems that did much more than tell us what a work of visual art (and not just painting) showed; that, instead, shifted or transformed that work of art in an original way. We kept in mind John Hollander’s remark (echoing Simonides) that ‘Works of art are silent; poetry speaks its mind’ (2001: n.p), looking for ekphrastic poetry that gave works of art new inflections and, often, unexpected emphases. As with John Hollander in his article ‘The Poetics of Ekphrasis’, the reading of poems often returned us to the simplicity of Horace’s famous leitmotif: ‘ut picture poesis’ [as is painting, so is poetry] (1988: 216), in the sense that the poems we selected all renew the resonance or urgency of the poetry-painting nexus.

We have assembled a group of ekphrastic poems that establish a call and response relationship with particular artworks, and take these artworks into newly imagined territory. These works demonstrate an understanding of poetry and artwork as ‘mutually enhancing’ (Benton, 1). As a poem ‘rise(s) above its dependence on the visual artwork, deepening the reader’s response to the visual artwork, while also establishing itself as an autonomous work’ (1), so it creates deepening perspectives for the viewer of the artwork and for reader alike.

This selection of works captures some of the importance of ekphrastic poetry for contemporary Australian and international poets. These poets often perceive a fairly fluid relationship between art and life; and between the abstract and the quotidian, a tendency that J.D. McClatchy summarises neatly:

for most (contemporary) poets paintings are primal, as ‘real’ as the bread and wine on the table, as urgent as a dying parent or concealed lover in the next room (McClatchy, xii).

In such a light, the poems in this issue may be understood as taking up David Kennedy’s thesis that the best ekphrastic poetry relies on ‘the extent to which art disturbs the contemporary moment’ (Kennedy, 5), revealing the poet’s personal and transformative encounter with an artwork or artworks.

Further, this issue invites conversations about ekphrasis in the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. We are delighted to have ekphrastic poetry from the invited international poets Tony Barnstone, Anne Boyer, Stephen Burt, Katharine Coles, Moira Egan, Dana Gioia, Philip Gross, Megan Kaminski, Joel Long, Airea D. Matthews, Fiona Sampson, Elizabeth Smither, Sholeh Wolpe, Mark Yakich, and Australia poet Jennifer Strauss. Responses to visual art from these luminaries range from William Cordova’s macchu picchu after dark, a ‘monumental structure made with over two hundred recycled speaker boxes’, to the photo series, Pornographie by Édouard Levé, to the film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, to Alexandra Eldridge’s new image for the The Hanged Man in the Tarot pack, to Heather Parnell’s Pocket Remains, a series of works ‘created in a very particular way – by burning the contents of the artist’s pockets (tissues, etc) on the paper’ (Gross 2016: n.p.).

The majority of ekphrastic poems we received were in response to paintings – demonstrating the way in which painting and poetry frequently possess a symbiosis. Famous paintings by Picasso, Modigliani, Degas and Giorgione are vivified by poets keen to bring new meaning to renowned artworks. Carolyn Abbs revisits Mona Lisa, reanimating it through the image on her phone of ‘glass-black eyes’:

Eons later         I find the image on my phone: 
a sheep with glass-black eyes 
how an Italian might paint; 
three-quarter profile, upright pose, ample bodied.

Paul Munden’s poem, inspired by Giorgione’s wonderful small painting La Tempesta, is a taut evocation of both ‘seeing’ and ‘unseeing’. An intense narrative drives the characters into the Scuola della Carità in a twinned encounter of La Tempesta with poet and reader:

A lightning flash over the lagoon
displaces me – we're running again
headlong down 
the flight of blinding stone
steps, towards noon,
grabbing a cup of iced red melon
before we adjourn

           	to the cool interior
            of the Scuola della Carità,
            straight to the one picture
            you insist that I see: La Tempesta.

Famous Australian painters, including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley are also represented by poets in this issue, as well as lesser known but fascinating paintings such as Shona Rapira-Davies’ Ka pinea koe e ahau. Ki te pine o te aroha. Ki te pine e kore nei E waikura e. A lament and paintings from Dena Kahan’s Glass Garden series.

While paintings charge many poets’ imaginations, sculptures such as Alberto Giacometti’s Head of Diego and Louise Bourgeois’s Cell (Glass spheres and hands), photographs such as Paul Strand’s Anna Attinga Frafra, and Japanese stoneware and ceramics are also powerfully suggestive in these poets’ hands. A video and DVD transfer, films and even a quilt provide further powerful moments of poetic reflection and innovation.

Finally, we are also delighted to have been granted permission to publish Aileen Kelly’s ‘BreakFast’, a poem responding to Sybil Craig’s After Eggs. Sadly, Aileen passed away in 2011, but her poetry is luminous. Her poem, here, ends with an ‘insist(ence) on ‘quite a different picture’; a brilliant way of describing the complexities of ekphrastic poetry and its aim in promoting new perspectives and ways of seeing.

The ekphrastic poems in this issue are as diverse in form as they are in the visual representations they enliven for the reader. In this way, they are vivid ebullitions of animation, disarming and textured in their evocation of the visual.

Thank you to all the poets who submitted work for consideration for publication in this edition. We read many hundreds of poems and had a very difficult time narrowing our selection down to the final poems reproduced here. And, thank you to Kent MacCarter for his time, patience and support. He has a formidable editorial process that demonstrates his enduring respect and advocacy for poetry. We have greatly enjoyed working on this issue with him.

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