Monday, April 25, 2011

Ekphrasis: Exercises in Ecstasy

I’m not the biggest fan of “poetry prompts,” little exercises meant to stretch your poetic muscles, such as writing down random words and making a poem out of them on an equally random topic. Some people respond to these really well, and some people just don’t, and I’m one of the latter (it might have something to do with my overall allergy to exercise of any sort). Occasionally, a prompt will move me to write something funky I would not have thought of before, but more often my attempts at writing from prompts only result in contrived lines that show the prompt from a mile away. For this reason, I don’t often use them, but I am very intrigued by them, and there have been many great prompts collected this month. Some of my favorites this year are at Kelly Russell Agodon’s Book of Kells and Big Tent Poetry.

Museum Mediations: Reframing Ekphrasis in Contemporary American Poetry (Literary Criticism and Cultural Theory)Ekphrasis is not really a “prompt,” but it’s a tradition that can work as such. From the Greek ek and phrasis, out and speak, “ekphrasis” basically refers to any type of art based on another medium. (For a more complete definition, including an excellent bibliography, read here.) Ekphrastic poetry, then, is poetry that is based on other works of art, such as a painting, a sculpture, or a song. What I love about ekphrasis is that, unlike a random prompt not based on an existing work of art, ekphrasis can help you connect to another artist’s vision, and is thus by definition an act of inspiration, a mooching, if you will, off another artist’s creation. If you’ve ever stood transfixed in front of a painting or a statue, you have experienced the moment that can begin an ekphrastic creation, a kind of ecstasy, also from the Greek ek (out) and histanai (to stand, as in place or set). The work of art takes you outside yourself to a new place.

Perhaps one of the most famous works of ekphrasis is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the static figures on the ancient piece of art inspire him to contemplate the timelessness of beauty:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;

One of the best results of the ekphrastic effort is that it’s an excellent antidote to abstraction, the vilest enemy of good poetry. Moved, as Keats was, by the passage of time, the figures on the urn ground his feelings in the material and produce one of the most treasured English poems of all time.

J. P. Dancing Bear, who writes beautiful ekphrastic poems (see his “New Age,” based on the painting Promise by Yu Sugawara), puts it thus: “I tend to get inside the picture and look around. Sometimes I see things outside the frame and I'm not afraid to explore that. After a while, I either become one of the beings in the painting or I become an observer (first person, second person, third person). I note all phrases that come into my mind. Words too. Then I begin to construct the narrative of the painting. I pay little attention to titles, I care very little for what the artist says about the work, or the artist's techniques. The artist has provided a window, and I climb through it.”

Thanks to the Internet, climbing through windows has never been so easy. Right here and now, on whichever device you are using to read this blog, you can contemplate at length and absolutely free the greatest works of art humanity has produced from ancient times to the present. Of course, there is something to be lost, some aura, as Walter Benjamin would have it, in the transaction. Should you have access to a museum, a gallery, an opera houseuse it. But the trick is not so much to have that coveted access to the work of art itself, but rather the ability to find art that moves you, that jars you, that takes you outside yourself and slams you down on the other side: ek histanai.

No pictures of sunsets, no puppy portraits. Cliché images make cliché poetry.

I prefer images that freak me out a little. I’m mesmerized, for example, by this series of portraits from artist Julie Blackmon called Domestic Vacations. Note how she is able to evoke emotions and ideas simply with pictures. Try to reproduce this effect in words. Choose one of the portraits in the collection and describe the scene it depicts. Attempt to convey whatever it is you felt when looking at the portrait simply through the selection and placement of detail. Do not reveal the emotion you are attempting to convey. Avoid using abstract adjectives, like “freaky” umbrellas.

Or try focusing on a work of art that speaks to some issue that is already on your mind. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about street harassment lately, ever since I read this excellent post by Louise Melling on the ACLU blog. Immediately I thought of the famous photograph by Ruth Orkin, “American Girl in Italy,” which I first saw some years ago in an Italian restaurant. I’m still working on it, but I think this is going to be a good poem, the mixture of the issue, the old photo, my memory of first having seen it, my own experiences of street harassment. You’re welcome to beat me to the punch, but what I want you to get from this romp through my head is the way a poem can come together. You can rely on your own experiences, your own notes, or you can research. You might think poetry and research are at odds, but the academic in me thrives on the accumulation of tidbits. An experience here, a blog post there, a famous photograph, and boom! A poem springs from the rock.

Unbound & BrandedSometimes ekphrastic inspiration springs from the unlikeliest of places. One of my favorite poetry collections is Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Unbound & Branded (Finishing Line Press, 2006), which I reviewed for Prairie Schooner in 2008. The collection is about supermodel Kate Moss, but the poems are based on a photo spread of Moss for a 2003 issue of W magazine. Each photo in the spread inspires a poem, and the collection as a whole, as the title implies, explores Moss’s career as a vessel for other artists and advertisers. Stewart-Nuñez could have written about Moss without the W spread, but the photos are intrinsic to her exploration of Moss’s role in the creation of this phenomenon we call beauty.

Another unlikely place to find poetry is Facebook or whatever social medium you prefer. One of the good things about being a writer and a teacher is that you quickly accumulate many FBFs, only a small percentage with whom you would normally share pictures. On any given day on Facebook I see pictures of people’s trips to Italy, of their children eating ice cream at Disney World, or their own versions of themselves as supermodels posing for their friends. Unlike professional photographs, these images are raw, unmediated. They are an excellent source of stories, attitudes, and the daily dilemmas that make great poetry. Oh, and don’t worry. Not all ekphrastic poetry is so enmeshed in the original work of art that it requires disclosure. Sometimes a poem begins as ekphrasis and ends just as a poem, so far away from its source as to be virtually unrelated to it. Some ekphrastic poetrythe truest ekphrasis, one could arguecannot be fully appreciated or even understood without its source. But some can stand alone, and the reader can experience it with or without its source. Should your source be a picture of someone you barely know on Facebook, perhaps it would be best to leave the source behind as much as possible. All kidding aside, however, do be aware of copyright issues, and acknowledge them appropriately.

The Voice of the Poet : Anne SextonBe open to pretty much anything as a source for ekphrasis. One of my favorite Anne Sexton poems is “Some Foreign Letters,” in which she attempts to reconstruct the early life of her beloved great-aunt Elizabeth. The poem is so rich in images it may have well have been based on photographs, and says much about the lost art of letter-writing in that Sexton was able to so vividly picture her aunt’s life through her letters. Old letters can be difficult to work with, in that they already come to you in words, thus stealing something from the process of transmogrification that defines the essence of ekphrasis. Nevertheless, the conversation can be gratifying. Some of my favorite poems are based on other poems, like Anthony Hecht’s “The Dover Bitch,” which is based on Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Hecht’s poem is arguably parody, or satire, but ultimately ekphrasis. Call it what you willit’s freaking great.

Here’s the final trick, whatever source you riff off of: make it yours. Ekphrasis can be many things, but never imitation. The source is the point of departure, but the destination must be yours.


  1. I want to, I just do not have the skill. Images are what moves me. I've been meaning to write a poem about a rubber ducky for the longest of times without sounding stupid. I have concluded it is not possible.

  2. Sounds like a challenge to me! Hey, if Billy Collins can write a poem about a lanyard, you can write a poem about a rubber ducky.

  3. I love Dancing Bear's explanation/disclaimer.
    That can also be a good way to experience poetry.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...