Poetry responding to art: Contemporary ekphrasis

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Making use of images as a means of writing continues to flourish as an area of contemporary practice. For instance, ‘Poetic responses to Gustav Klimt’ at the recent Hay Festival included readings by Jo Brandon, Aviva Dautch and Shazea Quraishi.

Likewise, collections such as Rego Retold by Owen Lowery explore poetic responses to artworks. Nevertheless, what is telling is the conspicuous absence of the word ekphrasis. Could it be that ‘responses’ allows writers to circumvent issues around defining ekphrasis and/or its seeming restrictiveness? Or, could it be that ekphrasis is considered archaic or unnecessarily jargonistic? To conduct a search for ‘ekphrastic poetry collections’ is surprisingly unfruitful (as I know from my PhD research). This is likely because recent experiments in writing with images are yielding results which either test the boundaries of ekphrasis or render the word redundant. To identify, then, poets working with word-image relationships can pose a significant challenge.  

Ekphrasis, in its usual modern definition (from the nineteenth century on), refers to writing descriptively about an actual work of art. A loose definition is also given by James Heffernan when he suggests that ekphrasis is ‘a verbal representation of visual representation’. For the Greeks, ekphrasis was more a rhetorical strategy, conveying energeia or the vividness of lived experience. ‘The Shield of Achilles’ in The Iliad, for example, doesn’t really exist, though the image is successfully evoked in the mind of the reader. This latter understanding, if applied to contemporary practice, enables poets to explore notional ekphrasis: the prompt for the poem in this case might be an imagined work of art, an intense memory or a dream. In fact, the more ancient definition is usually more accurate if using the word ekphrasis with reference to today’s poets writing about or alongside an image. After all, for them, description is usually no more than a starting point for the poet to go elsewhere: to include aspects of a wider historical context or present a mode of disguised confessionalism. Pascale Petit’s What the Water Gave Me is arguably one such example.

My own research – which centres on writing poems in response to abstract or monochromatic artworks – is also tasked with the problem of a definition. Is ekphrasis a placeholder for now: to be supplanted by another, more accurate term? This is particularly incumbent upon me, given that the paintings I’m writing about are examples of modern art which often resist description, where the focus seems to be less on representation and more on the experience of seeing. My poem ‘Black Square’, for instance, looks to mimic, to some extent, a painting of the same title by Kasimir Malevich.

If this poem is to be understood as ekphrastic, it includes – beyond description – the uncertain and fluctuating process of looking, what is seen in the imagination, and attempts to go beyond the physical limits of the frame. At the same time, the poem remains tethered to the Malevich. So, is this ekphrasis or simply a response?: that is the question.

Illustration: 'What the Water Gave Me' by Frida Kahlo (1938)

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