Towards a poetics of contemporary diaspora practice

This essay emerges as practice-based research generated by my own writing of ekphrastic poetry. It aims to articulate a poetics of diaspora engendered by this practice and its triggers, contexts, dynamics and strategies. In an investigation of questions about ekphrasis raised by literary criticism, the essay considers a network of traditional historical, literary and theoretical approaches, and debates about its validity. It also revisits the sources of ancient ekphrasis in oral delivery and the medieval meditative practices of ekphrasis. Medieval oral and rhetorical reading and delivery focuses on the effect of ekphrasis upon the mind and feelings of the reader or listener, a feature feasibly linked to contemporary ekphrasis as practice, voice and performance. This essay illustrates the emphasis on the workings of creative mind through an example and commentary on the composition of one of my own poems, where the contexts of its writing – of migration, memory, ambivalence and temporal displacement – have significance for the development of a poetics of diaspora practice.

 

Keywords: Ekphrasis – enargeia – creative writing – mind – medieval rhetoric – diaspora

 

Discussions about ekphrasis in poetry have a well-traversed history in literary criticism, and more recently in the practice-led poetics of poets in Australia, as in the recent Cordite Poetry Review Special Issue: Ekphrastic (2017) and elsewhere (Atherton and Hetherington 2017; Symes 2017; Hillhorst 2016; Freiman 2012; Swensen 2011). This essay similarly emerges from a perspective of poetic practice that I want to expand upon, a practice in which the responses to visual art works generating the creative writing, while predominantly based on visual sensation, are also far more varied in terms of reactions determined by the shifting subjectivities and the active performed writing of the poet. For this reason, in claiming that I write ekphrastic poetry, I find myself wanting to explore a process that draws on a manifold range of subjective positions and actions of mind, and also the extent to which ekphrasis as practice is dependent upon, or in dialogue with, literary critical approaches of reading and interpretation that continue to define ekphrasis (eg Tschofen 2013; Smith 2013; Watson 2009). The contemporary deployment of ekphrasis in arts and literary theory is varied, and at the same time its role in practice is often under-theorised. A practice-based inquiry and a revised consideration of the origins of ekphrasis theory can provide new directions in theorising the practice in ways more suited to a contemporary, increasingly fragmented and trans-temporally experienced world.  

 

Theories and debates

Studies of classical rhetorical traditions of the first two centuries CE tend to refer to ekphrasis as ‘words about images,’ a definition that was not confined to written language (Webb 2009: 5). Indeed, ancient ekphrasis was a teaching strategy of rhetorical training for oratory, its purpose being to make oral delivery convincing and persuasive; the classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome defined ‘ekphrasis first and foremost as a type of speech (logos) that has a certain effect upon an audience’ (Webb 1999: 11). Essential for this effect was the rhetorical technique of enargeia, without which ekphrasis could not succeed. Enargeia, or ‘vivid, sensuous word painting’, is the quality of vivid language used to create verbal pictures with the purpose of generating visual memorability in the minds of readers or listeners (Carruthers 1998: 130). In medieval thought and rhetoric, the quality of enargeia in ekphrasis and other ‘pictura’ (techniques of visual rhetoric) is a means of focusing the meditative mind in spatial, spiritual, emotive, and other ways to create the interest essential for the use of texts in religious and moral teachings (130-133). Thus historically, ekphrasis related to apperception; it was employed to create a lasting effect in the mind of the listener.[1]

In the twentieth-century, eliding the original focus on the rhetoric of orality, ekphrasis criticism and theory analyses examples of literary ekphrasis in terms of literal and figurative, often descriptive referencing of art objects such as the often cited description of Achilles’ imagined shield in Homer’s Iliad. Ekphrasis is defined as enacting or evoking visuality in writing description and commentary, with its main focus on a real or imagined art work or visual image. Twentieth-century ekphrasis theory is primarily embedded within the New Criticism, which dominated literary criticism outside the emergence of poststructuralism or reader-response theory, focusing attention on the poem on the page rather than in relation to the response or mind of the reader. Murray Krieger’s influential essay on ekphrasis (1967), considered a seminal example of mid-twentieth-century ekphrasis criticism, proposes ekphrasis (in selected poems) as a principle for a poetics, later developed by Krieger as an approach to a wider poetics of criticism (Krieger 1992). In his 1967 essay, Krieger’s sets visual and verbal modes as oppositional, arguing that poetic ekphrasis is characterised by the balancing of the forward movement of language towards the stillness or stasis of the plastic arts (122). Krieger emphasises the ekphrastic poem’s ‘formal and linguistic self-sufficiency [which] involves the poem’s coming to terms with itself’: the poem creates its own poetic of the visual, the challenge of which is to turn the linearity of language into a visual poetic mode by employing the language of the spatial arts, including strategies such as spatial metaphors (105). Thus, literature might imitate the spatial arts through the illusion of achieving a ‘time-space breakthrough in the plasticity’ of the poem’s language, which can ‘uniquely order spatial stasis within its temporal dynamics… [and] can produce – together with the illusion of progressive movement – the illusion of an organized simultaneity’ (125).

With this thesis of possible stillness or stasis of language (which we might contest, given the mutabilities of language), Krieger was the first to theoretically address the tension that arises in the conflict between linear language and spatial representation in an ekphrasis broadly understood as the ‘verbal representation of the visual’ (Heffernan 1993: 3). His argument had aimed to transcend what WJT Mitchell (1995) would later claim as the impossibility of ekphrasis – an impossibility that rests on the inherent and paradoxical ambivalence that arises in an ekphrasis claiming to enable a parity of representation between verbal and visual media. Challenging Krieger’s notion that spatial and linear representation in tension constitutes a balance or stillness in the poem and its poetic, Mitchell calls into question the entire validity of ekphrasis in contemporary poetry. His claim is that ekphrasis is a site of ambivalence characterised by indifference, hope and fear: indifference because ekphrasis is impossible – ‘A verbal representation cannot represent – that is, make present – its object in the same way a visual representation can. It may refer to an object, describe it, invoke it, but it can never bring its visual presence before us in the way pictures do’; the hope that this impossibility can be overcome or transcended; and anxiety or fear, which is ‘the moment of resistance or counterdesire that occurs when we sense that the difference between the verbal and visual representation might collapse and the figurative, imaginary desire of ekphrasis might be realized literally and actually’ (Mitchell 1995: 152-154). Mitchell’s rebuttal of the New Critical scholarship contains the assertion that it is impossible to combine visual and verbal communication – these ‘fantasies of ekphrastic fear and hope in the reader’ are the hope for a suturing of the ‘estrangement of the image/text division’ (178). The argument aims to further Mitchell’s push for the recognition of a pictorial turn in the humanities and art-theory, which historically had privileged text over image. He concludes that ekphrasis ‘like the typical ekphrastic poem, will have to be understood as a fragment or miniature’ – that is, not as a literary or poetic principle – and in order to be sustainable, the ekphrastic poem would have to be iconic, as in concrete or graphic poetry in which text and visuality are presented on the same plane (181). From this perspective, to talk about ekphrasis as a poetry beyond the limits of iconicity becomes problematic: nineteenth- and twentieth-century views of ekphrasis have, it thus seems, been rendered inadequate in the light of later textual and pictorial theory.

One could argue though, as I do in this essay, that it is this ambivalence and ‘impossibility’ that drives the poetic creativity of the ekphrastic response. Despite Mitchell’s often convincing theoretical claims, late twentieth-century and contemporary ekphrastic practices persist in their engagement with frames and assumptions of ekphrasis criticism in ways that do not (necessarily) produce iconic poetry, one of these being that ekphrasis references a real or imaginary work of visual art.[2] Numerous examples of twentieth-century and contemporary poetry engage with the viewing of paintings and objects in other media as a key instigator of their ideas and writing processes, although there is little consensus on a terminology to account for modernist poetics or postmodernist theories of language beyond some individual definitions – such as the self-referenced ‘painter poems’ of O’Hara and Ashbery (Davidson 1982: 72). Another assumption that emerged with twentieth-century criticism and persists in creative writing practice, and which is embedded in my own practice described in this essay, is that ekphrasis is poetry that engages with real or imagined works of art. It was with Leo Spitzer’s 1962 essay on Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ that the idea was founded of ekphrasis as the poetic genre; by the mid-twentieth-century, and influenced by German nineteenth-century aesthetic philosophy, ekphrasis had separated from the medieval rhetorical forms of oratory or ‘pictura’ as aids for thought and memory and was framed rather as description, in poetry, of a pictorial or sculptural work of art (Spitzer 1962: 67-97). With Spitzer’s influence, this became the standard view – a definition of ekphrasis as poetic ‘verbal representation of a visual representation’ that included the symbolic or metaphoric inferences the poet draws from what he sees (Heffernan 1993: 3, Webb 2009: 34).

The ongoing focus in twentieth-century literary criticism is that ekphrasis is poetry – although more recently, and influenced by poststructuralist and textual theory, ekphrasis has been mobilised in analyses of other visual media such as film and photography; of other modes of writing such as the representations of visual art in narrative fiction; and the presentation of visuality in verbal narrative unrelated to visual objects but engaging visual image and imagination (Emery 1997; Yacobi 1995; Kafalenos 2003). The insertion of narrative into these shifting definitional frames of ekphrasis contests the limitations of its exclusiveness to poetry – though it is notable that classical and medieval ekphrasis had always included narrative: its appeal as description in the narrative of Homer’s Iliad, as noted by GE Lessing in 1766, was that it functioned as a halting of the overall narrative movement (Lessing 1984). Further unpacking Krieger’s theory, and re-inserting narrative movement into lyric poetry, Tamar Yacobi’s (1995) discussion of the responses to photographic images in the work of Israeli poet and Holocaust survivor Dan Pagis asserts that ‘the still moment does not follow, nor correspondingly, does its divorce from narrative and narrativity’ (616). Yacobi observes that ‘this poetry dynamizes the object on every possible level. The world re-presented, the re-presentational discourse event, the viewpoint, the reading – all spring into life, and in the service of the mutability theme at that’ (616). While it is impossible to divorce time and spatiality, in literary reading and writing they can exist as simultaneity within a re-represented, narrativised visual ‘model’. Pictorial and narrative elements ‘are actually two related but independent parameters of ekphrasis’ enabling the verbal ‘re-representation’ in the literary narrative and/or poem (601): ‘We then have the ekphrasis of the visual model (as distinct from the visual artwork) to narrativized effect (as against descriptive, picturelike, or thematic bearing)’ (601).

 

Ekphrasis as a practice of mind

Yacobi’s framework also re-instates a contemporary ekphrasis within a broader range of textual strategies that are affective, cognitive and performative. Ekphrasis facilitates the practice of creating the verbal text or poem to incorporate a ‘dynamising’ of the object, which I suggest would include the strategy of subjective voice as active performativity and embodied utterance evident in the textual nuances of poetry, in which pacing, silences, rhythm, sound patterns, and figurative language all function to highlight the experience of enargeia for the reader or listener in an experience of bodily affect and feeling. While theoretical shifts in textual and pictorial theory since the mid to late twentieth century have had a profound effect on how the relationships between image and text are dealt with, it is the medieval tradition of ekphrasis that provides frameworks that go beyond descriptive parameters, incorporating cognitive activities of mind, such as spatiality, and feeling. Mary Carruthers (1998) refers to the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (c.35-100 CE) for his definition of enargieac ekphrasis as ‘mind painting’ (130), and while Quintilian’s focus was on visuality there is also in his theory of enargeia a clear connection to feeling and emotion. He assumes, says Carruthers, that ‘each person’s mental “picture” will likely contain details that are not even in the author’s words’, with an emphasis ‘not on faithfully “illustrating” the words, as we might demand, but on making some “picture” in order to feel, to remember, and thus to know’ (132). Embedded in the claim that medieval ekphrasis ‘summons in the mind the imagined structures required for inventive meditation’ is a trope of vision that includes the performativity of creative thought and imagination (222), which can be effectively linked to the role of the creative mind in composition and reception responses in our contemporary writing and reading practices.

As creative writers and scholars continue to engage with visual arts media, and to mobilise and massage the term ekphrasis, it is useful to revisit these much earlier approaches, not least because they address practice and performance.  In view of this aspect of performative practice, which has been absent from ekphrasis criticism, the function of the writer as author or as Roland Barthes’ (1986) scriptor is re-introduced into both ekphrastic literary and practice-led criticism. The role of the writer should equally be included in the relationship between the ekphrastic process of composition and the creative work of an-other – rather than claiming, as Mitchell does, that the ‘central goal of ekphrastic hope might be called the “overcoming of otherness”…’ (1995: 156), implying that the primary interest of ekphrasis is in appropriating the works of other creative artists for its own purposes.

While the visual image that has already entered the writer’s creative mind must remain as ‘other’ and can be accommodated as such in terms of engaging in dialogues with it, it is also true that writing is never free from otherness. The creative mind of the writer is not a clean sheet unsullied by experience. Apart from the gaps between signifier and signified there are in language always ‘ideologically charged associations’ (Mitchell 226) – termed by Frederic Jameson as ‘… “ideologemes,” allegories of power and value disguised as neutral metalanguage’ (157).[3] In its negotiations of textual response and image, the ekphrastic text too engages with any number of relationships of discursive power. Responding to an art work or visual object sparks an immediate dialectic of self/other, which includes relationships such as the power of the gaze and the significance of situatedness in the responsive experience. As Mitchell points out, ‘…[t]he “otherness” we attribute to the image-text relationship is … not exhausted by a phenomenological model (subject/object, spectator/image). It takes on the full range of possible social relations inscribed within the field of verbal and visual representation’ (162). Michael Davidson’s (1983) analysis of the ‘painter poems’ of O’Hara and Ashbery suggests a way of articulating the relationship within the instability of language and reader-response, allowing for the poet’s multiple and fragmented responses in what is effectively a performative viewing, reading and writing:

…a painting serves to trigger a series of reflections, the working-out of which depends upon the semiotic and stylistic factors within the canvas. One of the things that this working-out discovers is the uneasy status of the painting regarded as an object. In order to render the instability of this artifact, the poet becomes a reader of the painter’s activity of signifying. This act of reading is never passive, never recuperative since its function is to produce a new text, not to re-capture the original in another medium. The poet who reads another work of art transforms his hermeneutic into performance, just as the reader of the poem participates among the various codes of the text to generate his own readings’ (77). (My italics)

 

In practice

The composition of one of my ekphrastic poems, ‘Masque’ (Freiman 2010: 31-32), is used here to illustrate a creative process of writing in response to an art work, a collage by Australian artist Colin Lanceley titled The Glad Family Picnic (1961-62) in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. My personal history of late-twentieth century migration and an ongoing creative project of ekphrasis as a way of engaging with the creativity of my adopted home through its art brackets a personal sense of otherness in my relation to this work.

AGNSW Hi Res image Lanceley.jpg

Colin Lanceley, Glad Family Picnic, 1961-1962. Oil, mixed media on plywood. 122.0 x 183.0 cm board; 125.9 x 186.6 x 4.0 cm. AGNSW. © Colin Lanceley/Licensed by Viscopy, 2017.

 

Masque

The forced gaiety of it,
the mad smiles,
pot-lid masks, nursery school paint,
battered, bent and bow-legged
like children made mad by the lie.

This is a masquerade
of what we were told to expect,
that we’d be happy and safe:

when buttons batter noise,
when grey grimace red tongue
and teeth rust, the sharp thrust,
children blind with fright,
the tear-torn eye –

memories heap upon the pile
laced with lattices of corrosion –
the dust balls under the bed,
leaden hearts, like crushed metal,
ash fallen from a father’s cigarette,
a mother torn of sex,
children delivered to it – 

the sky was filled with planes
aiming at our picnic.
No hoffnung nor liebe
the remains were yellow as a cat’s eye
  shining through the mud.       

The poem is a response partly to the textured materiality of Lanceley’s collage painting on plywood board, with its found objects and materials such as rusted corrugated metal, buttons, crumpled metal foil, hammered paint-tin lids and discarded, sharp-edged cogs. Layered with paint onto the surface are two-dimensional naïve or primitive faces and figures, which emerge from the glued-on and painted shapes and textures of the found objects – vertical lines connoting legs, or decorative eyelashes, hair and halos. The effect is abstract, playful, comic and sinister, with jarring tones of purple, brown, yellow, orange and white, and textures of thick impasto and a graininess contributing to what ‘feels’ to the viewer’s eye and senses like gritty sand or sawdust. The found objects and materiality present a sense of clamour, of playful sinister noise. There is little in the work that can be experienced as static or balanced; the affective experience of viewing it is that of disruption. Part of the work’s otherness is also in its subtextual referencing of Maori and New Guinea art, positioning the work geographically within the Pacific region – however when I wrote the poem, I was unaware of this context and it was not overtly part of my reaction to the work at that time.[4]

The stimulus of seeing Lanceley’s work in the airy Sydney gallery generated a combination of attraction, repulsion and surprise. The date and title printed on the label created a paratext that very quickly became integrated into my reaction, the words weaving into and fracturing my visual response. The date 1961-1962 acted as an autobiographical trigger of inchoate memory images of childhood and vague feelings of discomfort and dread – an effect of feeling and obscureness I did not want to explain, but rather allow. Creative process, which is outside consciousness, is not visible nor explicable, but there was within the dialectic field between the work and my subjective viewing a resonant sense of lost or spoiled innocence, and an anxiety and emotion that would drive the drafting of the poem, immediately and in the presence of the work. Reaching back associatively to the 1960s of my childhood in South Africa, I was cognitively shifted into memory – as if I was no longer present in the gallery, but in another time and place, a place that was decidedly not Australia. This was not an identifiable time or place; based in indefinable experience, it was imaginary and felt at-odds and rather bitter. Nevertheless, a sense of a narrative story-world, or the desire to create one, occurred despite the absence of a specific time frame.

This diffuse time frame was reinforced by two intertextual references, which entered connotatively towards the end of the poem in its initial drafting, possibly a point at which more conscious cognition was engaged in the writing process. The first of these references was to another collage by Anselm Kiefer titled Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe – an image of tension between ascension and heaviness made from lead and canvas, situated in a different hall in the same art gallery, which I had in previous viewings associated with its European origin, and as a post-World War II response by a next generation German artist.

While my association was somewhat intellectual, it was also a reaction to the disturbing material quality of this work as well as to the temporalities of both pieces. Kiefer’s European referencing, together with the significations I was reading in Lanceley’s work, became a fused but diffuse world; an amalgamation of a childhood in 1950s and 1960s apartheid South Africa: my Jewish background, my father’s German business-partner and her role as a surrogate grandmother in the family, my mother’s ambivalence about her at the time, and my current, suddenly doubly displaced life in distant Australia. The shadowy, imaginary world of the poem became a response to feelings about aspects of the world I grew up in, generated by Lanceley’s material image before me, in particular by its feeling of restlessness and sinister play.  

Another inter-textual layer, triggered through Lanceley’s imagery of harshness and play, and by own reading history, is echoed in the reference in the poem to Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye (1990) in which the cat’s eye – a glass marble – is associated with anxiety and optimism in emerging childhood independence (62). This motif appeared to reinforce, in my mind, the ambivalence of heaviness and ascension of Kiefer’s Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, reference to which immediately precedes it in the poem’s compositional associations (‘the sky was filled with planes/ aiming at our picnic’). Clearly, the rather discordant intersubjective dialogue of my ekphrastic poem extends to a response far more complicated than a descriptive rendering of the visual art work, yet the traces of Lanceley’s image and its material form are inherent in a poem that would not have been written without the encounter with the art work and its materiality. The poem engages feeling, memory, history, lived experience, my reading history and perceptions, multiple displacements, and the need for narrative – all created in the trajectory and utterances of the poem’s language, its references to childhood, and a temporality so fractured that I cannot tell when its memory-traces are meant to have originated, other than that they occurred one afternoon in a gallery – a fact that fades to insignificance despite the environment being conducive to the process. The poem’s associations also connotatively signify the context of my presence, and no doubt my feelings, in the AGNSW on the day I wrote this poem – it is a dialogue between moments, a re-representation of memories more as traces than articulations, and a narrative form driven by its multiple temporalities.

 

Encounters with place, time, and memory – towards a poetics of diaspora

Framing a poetics of a practice for contemporary ekphrasis must allow for contradiction and ambivalence in the juxtaposition of writing and the actions of seeing – components of situatedness, subjective gaze, utterance, verbalisation, affect, and association. Within this field, there is the possibility in what Mitchell claims is impossible – a possibility premised upon the recognition of a fractured, creative process of response to visual representation or object. This is a response that does not necessarily attempt to render, represent, equate, or capture the visual in language. The process is far more dialogic, ambivalent, multiple and conflicted, and in this way it suggests a poetics of ekphrasis within a context of what I have termed a ‘postcolonial creativity’ which, because it is premised in unresolvable conflict and ambivalence (Freiman 2006), is the antithesis of balance or stillness. My practice, illustrated in this one example of composition, is a poetics of ekphrasis that embodies and necessarily includes in its language, voice, performativity and affect, the possibilities of otherness.

As indicated here, the place of viewing the art work can be significant in establishing a context of otherness; usually for my project, the work of art is in a gallery, museum or some other public space, and the writing is first drafted with some rapidity in an emplaced action. The work’s installation and the subjective positioning of the viewer contributes to the response that drives the making of the poem, yet any sense of secure (and institutional) placement in such a cultural context is simultaneously disrupted by the response and by the art work itself. A field of difference and otherness is established within which the art work is encountered: these differences are influential and constitutive as the signified meanings inferred in both texts are brought into play. The element of openness in the moment to the perceptual experience of a work of creative art also constitutes the poem’s openness to other temporalities.

John Berger (1972) famously defamiliarises assumptions of the unreflective gaze in acts of seeing by insisting on the integration of the historical, political and ideological contexts of these acts. In an epigraph – one of the several dialogic paratexts to his essay ‘The Moment of Cubism’ – he quotes from a poem by Russian artist El Lissitzky: ‘“The work of art is therefore/ only a halt in the becoming/ and not a frozen aim on its own”’ (Berger 1995: 159), underscoring the importance of the temporal context of the work of art and its viewing in Berger’s theory. His own ekphrastic poem, ‘On a Degas bronze of a dancer’, which prefaces another essay titled ‘The work of art’ in the volume where these essays and poems are collected, enacts this contextualising aesthetic of seeing and making. The poem interprets Degas’ late nineteenth-century sculpture of the female dancer’s body through a framework of modern engineering: ‘Think in terms of bridges./ See, the road of leg and back/ Hingeing at hip and shoulder/ Holds firm from palm to heel’ (158). The poem performs a verbal re-interpretation of the representational form that the viewer/ writer sees: thus an independently free reading of the Degas sculpture becomes a re-representation, creating a dialogue between historical moments. The poem is a re-casting of the late nineteenth-century art work of French modernism into the historical and ideological moment inhabited by Berger and his writings, while further interpretation of the art work remains implicitly open.

The process of writing a poem in response to the visual, temporal and emplaced experience of an art work engages a dialogic relationship between the poem’s making and the creative work of another artist. It may reflect on the actions of the viewer in relation to the object (Swensen 2011: 70), or it may elicit an imaginative meditation such as a reverie – but as ‘intersubjective dialogical encounter’ with the art work as other (Mitchell 1995: 226), the experience may also be one of fracture. In the example of the writing of ‘Masque’, the cognitive and emotional encounter coupled with curiosity stirred the desire to creatively enter the fracture and to construct, from the experience, some manner of shape or form. The making of a poem from such a response is characterised by spatial and temporal openness, so that the act of seeing and responding has enacted (albeit fragmented) temporalities of experience. Such acts of seeing are considerably rich with creative possibilities: as Berger (1972) notes, they establish ‘our place in the surrounding world’, although ‘the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled’ (7). My encounter also evoked the need to write, a need that is central to our sense of existence and location of meaning. It is a means of inscribing space with language as a repeated, iterative process. Susan Stewart (1993) locates this need as a response to the absence of signification – the ‘terror of the unmarked grave’:

… a terror of the insignificance of a world without writing. The metaphor of the unmarked grave is one which joins the mute and the ambivalent; without the mark there is no boundary, no point at which to begin the repetition. Writing gives us a device for inscribing space, for inscribing nature: the lovers’ names carved in bark, the slogans on the bridge…. Writing serves to caption the world, defining and commenting upon the configurations we choose to textualize (31).

Like writing, the material arts place their marks upon the world, signifying actively and openly. Verbal language too is just a series of signs, until the signs are formulated. The process is of one modality reaching towards the other, but it is an encounter encompassing an ineluctable difference from the other as well. If there is a desire for a ‘suture’ of visual and verbal modes, as Mitchell contends, there is also the awareness of the impossibility of suture – a writer cannot overcome the displacements and fragmentations involved in the encounter.

The openness of the creative mind’s activity means that the subjective gaze of the inter-art engagement simultaneously instigates associative leaps – a perpetual motion of the mind when attentively viewing a work of art as the writing grapples with thoughts that are loose and inexplicit. Thoughts veer away from the image towards other associations, subjective meanings and feelings, or are prompted by other sensory responses to the work’s materiality and the dynamic energies of its form. This subjective perception is affective: even before it begins to be rendered consciously or in language, the visual response is one of sensory affect, rather than felt emotion (Shouse 2005: n.pag.). Our affective state is experienced in the body; it is not an abstraction of the mind, and it has a profound bearing on the trajectory and feeling conveyed in the poem, on the motivation for its creation, and very possibly, its form (Freiman 2009).

If seeing involves a subjective choice, this choice is not necessarily a matter of volition – it is affective, emotive, and ideologically determined (Berger 1972: 8). Only then is it conscious, enactive and articulated. There is ‘something about’ a particular visual model that causes one to choose to explore its connotations and associations more deeply. This is echoed in Barthes’ (1993) concept of punctum – the piercing or pricking of perception, or of the self, by some element, in this case of a photographic image. This response is not sought out, says Barthes; rather it is ‘an element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’. It is a ‘point of disturbance in a photograph...that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’ (56-57). The experience of the punctum may not be immediate: it may be latent within the apperception and linked with associations of memory. Barthes illustrates the power of this experience in a photograph of an African American family:

Reading Van der Zee’s photograph [Family Portrait 1926], I thought I had discerned what moved me: the strapped pumps of the black woman in her Sunday best; but this photograph has worked within me, and later on I realized that the real punctum was the necklace she was wearing; for (no doubt) it was this same necklace (a slender ribbon of braided gold) which I had seen worn by someone in my own family, and which, once she died, remained shut up in a family box of old jewelry (this sister of my father never married, lived with her mother as an old maid, and I had always been saddened whenever I thought of her dreary life). I had just realized that however immediate and incisive it was, the punctum could include a certain latency (but never any scrutiny) (53).

The language here illustrates the creativity of memory – the initial adoption of associative memory (the strapped pumps) before the underlying emotion is revealed through the associated image of the necklace in the significantly layered and bracketed sadness of the aunt, the imagined loneliness of her life as an ‘old maid’. This punctum opens a particular kind of response that incorporates other memories and cognitive associations, and there is more to the experience – it loops around again: ‘once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined): on account of her necklace the black woman in her Sunday best has had, for me, a whole life external to her portrait’ (57).

The concept of a punctum of an image highlights its affective triggering, its layering of temporalities, its powerful evocation of alterity. An aspect of the image then develops a further life external to itself, which also invokes feeling and a will to know, and to re-present what the viewer experiences. The elements of this response come together ‘in time’, and are enacted through the desire to give the experience shape or form. In Barthes’ reflective example we see how not only association comes into play, but also the will towards meaning. The ekphrastic poems I have produced are interpretations, individual and idiosyncratic readings of visual art works. They are a kind of Midrash – commentaries or exegeses on non-literal meanings that draw on the visual texts, but allow for dialogic interaction between the texts, the interpretations, and the process of making. The dialogic experience of being between visual and written texts triggers traces of a sense of being both inside and outside past experiences.

Research on memory in historical discourse observes that the instability and fragmentedness of memory is its strength: that memory ‘is partial, allusive, fragmentary, transient, and for precisely these reasons is suited to our chaotic times’ (Klein 2000: 138). In contexts of the ‘diaspora consciousness’ of migration and displacement, subjectivity is held in a defining tension ‘of loss and hope’ (Clifford 1997: 257), and as I argue here, this subjectivity creatively endeavours to express experience in part by creating often fragmentary commentaries on its readings or visual sightings. The conditions of global diaspora allow development of different aesthetics to those of eurocentric models, particularly in terms of time and place. This aesthetics incorporates pluralities and models of fragmentation, resonating with what RB Kitaj (1989) refers to as a ‘littering’ of ideas (39). It is a ‘polycentric aesthetics’, recognising that ‘all cultures, and the texts generated by these cultures … are multiple, hybrid, heteroglossic, unevenly developed, characterized by multiple historical trajectories, rhythms and temporalities’ (Shohat and Stam 1998: 39). Visual texts within this framework suggest the palimpsest as model or trope – ‘the parchment on which are inscribed the layered traces of diverse moments of past writing, contains within it this idea of multiple temporalities’ (39) – a model that also traverses the written text. The inclusive capacity of these texts to be unevenly developed, to engage multiple temporalities and traces is, I think, reflected in my ekphrastic practice.

In this essay, I have examined how twentieth-century literary criticism has considered ekphrasis often in combative terms – an appropriation of visual representation into poetry, or as intellectual aesthetic response – rather than the manifold active, dialogic, affective and emotive encounters of memory, utterance and performativity evident when one takes practice into account. It is this aspect of dialogic engagement through feeling, the effect of the punctum and the fracture, which I suggest as a reason for the creative force of visual responses to both figurative and more abstract art works, and those that assert their materiality, which have the capacity to enlist powerful associations in the viewer/writer. The poem ‘Masque’ and many others I have written are poems of response and action. They speak to the incommensurability of each image’s visual meanings, yet they also attest to the positioning of acts of vision and voice. The poems are therefore unstable within the dialogic relationship between writing and visual image, at the same time as they attest to intentionality. The practice of this writing in formulating a response to the visual echoes a rhetorical practice of ekphrasis in some ways more in line with ancient and medieval practices than with the earlier twentieth-century New Criticism’s frames of ekphrasis. There is no question of emulating the visual by transcending language’s linearity. While the poems are demonstrations of ambivalence, hope and fear within the broad and immediate contexts of their writing, and in terms of a poetics of place and displacement, these inter-art interactions are sources and enactments of creativity rather than of indifference or abjection.

 

 

Notes

[1] In this paper, italics for ekphrasis and enargeia is used only when this occurs in an original source or reference.

[2] An idea which this essay enforces, although it does not claim this as an exclusive approach to ekphrasis, as is the case in the New Criticism.

[3] Mitchell cites Jameson (1989 [1983]: 87).

[4] Lanceley, born in New Zealand, was part of a group of Sydney artists in the early 1960s called ‘The Annandale Imitation Realists’ who challenged convention and, influenced by Dada, Surrealism and Pop Art in Europe, used found objects combined with imagery from Maori, Balinese and New Guinea art in their work.

 

Acknowledgement

Thanks to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Viscopy for permission to reproduce images. 

 

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