The Effect of Indeterminacy in a Gallery Ekphrasis

To develop a meandering poetics specific to a ‘gallery’ ekphrastic poem, this paper examines the performance of the poetic line to create indeterminacy in two ekphrastic works published in 2016; Paul Hetherington’s Gallery of Antique Art and Ken Bolton’s ‘Dark Heart’. Whilst Hetherington’s work traverses a sequence of prose-poetic ‘rooms’ through his notionally ekphrastic gallery, Bolton’s poem is a scattered collage of his gallery experience, evading the traditionally ekphrastic mode of detached contemplation. Both poets bring the timeless properties of artworks in a gallery into the temporal flow of language by allowing for ‘detours’ to rupture the stilled time of the art-objects. Instead of approaching the artwork directly, the poet’s lived experience in the gallery space produces the poem, as an after effect of the poet’s failure to provide a comprehensive translation of the artworks contained within a gallery. Ekphrasis is posited as a creative and interpretive drive experienced by the poet, lived in the presence of an artwork or artworks, performed through the meandering poetic line. 

 

Keywords: Ekphrasis — Performance — Line — Indeterminacy — Poetics — Process Poem — Prose Poem

 

As Paul Hetherington writes in ‘Main Corridor’ from his 2016 collection Gallery of Antique Art, ‘The meandering feeling in these corridors suggests there are too many depictions of the ideal’ (2016: 11). Contemporary poets writing an ekphrastic poem should be skeptical of the ‘ideal’ that has been constructed through a poetic tradition of imagistic representation and poetic description extending from the Ancient Greeks. The descriptive ekphrastic mode can no longer hold the charged subjective experience of meandering through a gallery. A shift from the phenomenological experience of an artwork as a single object in isolation, to an exhibition or gallery experience means the poet no longer has a specific artist or image to respond to, but rather a series or sequence of images curated in a specific, public space. For Ken Bolton in his ekphrastic poem ‘Dark Heart’, this generates, ‘an atmosphere / not a backdrop’ (2016). Privileging the lived experience of the poet in the gallery space, I will investigate the function of meandering as a productive metaphor for the contemporary ekphrastic encounter, manifest in two different uses of poetic line in the prose poetry of Hetherington and ‘streamed collage’ of Bolton (Brown 2011).

W. J. T. Mitchell’s ‘problem’ of ekphrasis as ‘a verbal representation of a visual representation’ is an apt summary of the classical function of ekphrasis and the difficulty in developing a dynamic contemporary ekphrasis within this representative frame (1994: 151). Beyond the representational-descriptive tradition of ekphrasis, what is overlooked by such a narrow summary of the exercise is the creative and interpretive demand upon the poet to create something original in response to something, that unlike the subject of any other poem (a pastoral, an elegy), has been created (or in this case curated) by another semiotic actor: the artist, or by extension, the curator. Acknowledging the ekphrastic poem as a creative response to something created suggests two minimal functions for an ekphrasis: both to interpret and to create. An ekphrastic poem cannot simply exist as a piece of creative writing without expressing any interpretation of, or reference to, the artwork, as the connection with the artwork forms an essential part of the ekphrastic experience for the reader who is able to consider the artwork again with the poem in mind. Equally, a piece of writing that is interpretive but not engaged in some type of creative experimentation within the literary form would be excluded in this definition (such as reviews, artist statements or catalogue essays).

By being present in the physical space of the gallery and creating a poem that traces this meandering through the space of artworks, the gallery ekphrasis enacts both the creative and interpretive conditions of ekphrasis. The effect of the poet having a lived experience of the artwork brings the artwork out of the timeless contemplative sphere and into the present moment of the poem’s performance. A new definition for ekphrasis that reflects this might be: a creative and interpretive drive experienced by the poet, lived in the presence of an artwork or artworks, where the experience is a meandering: a failure to comprehensively account for the artwork that is performed through the lineation of the poem.

To examine the significance of meandering in Critical Theory, Slavoj Žižek proposes a dynamic between the Subject and the Other where the projection of a Drive onto the non-speaking Subject ultimately sublimates the Subject into the Object-Cause of Desire (1994, in Wright & Wright 1999: 155). In a direct analogy of the ekphrastic encounter, the creative/interpretive drive experienced by the poet is projected onto the artworks that are not in a position to respond, given that by experiencing art in a gallery or exhibition setting, the focus of their drive is impeded through the dispersal of attention across many artworks. The artwork considered in this gallery context becomes both the object of desire and the cause of desire (Lacan’s objet petit a) because it is not able to be translated in an absolute sense through the poem. The complexity of this sublimated desire means that the objet petit a is always out of reach. However, Žižek attests:

the space of desire is bent like space in the theory of relativity; the only way to reach the object-Lady is indirectly, in a devious meandering way — proceeding straight on ensures that we miss the target. This is what Lacan has in mind when apropos of courtly love, he evokes ‘the meaning we must attribute to the negotiation of the detour in the psychic economy’ (qtd. in Wright & Wright 1999: 155)

Whereas the straight lines of non-poetic prose may evince the rational ordering of proceeding ‘straight on’, instead the ‘meandering’ poetic line is essential to the creation of the gallery ekphrastic poem, as the object-cause of desire becomes in Aaron Schuster’s terms, ‘the motor for displacement and drift’ (2016: 60). In opposition to Mitchell’s definition, the poem no longer aspires to representation, which considered formally as a line would account for the sort of paragraph that could be adjusted as the margins of a page are adjusted. Instead the line of the poem becomes a site for detours; a presentation, which considered as an act in-time, reflects a chronicle of indeterminate meanderings. As Jan Jagodzinzki writes:

The paradox is that the process of searching itself produces the object that causes (frames) the search, but this happens retroactively, in an exact parallel to Lacan’s understanding of desire, which produces its own object cause (Jagodzinski 2010: 27 my italics)

Therefore it is the ‘searching itself’ that the poet brings into the present of the poem ‘through the operations of language, where desire both produces its object and is produced by it’ (Wright & Wright 1999: 3 my itals). The lines of the poem become a conduit for these temporal ‘operations of language’, as the performed expression of this lived experience.

As the poet leaves the gallery, or rather, as the poem is completed, there is a sense that this original desire has been in some way satiated. Yet, examining completion it is pertinent to further interrogate the time of the poem and how it is fundamentally and irrevocably at odds with the time of the gallery. As William Corbett notes on the poetry of James Schuyler, the reader is left feeling as though ‘something is over, but not finished’ (2012). In psychoanalytic terms, the drive continues without the poet (echoing Schuster’s description of the partial drives as ‘the organs without bodies’ (2016: 143-144)) in the same way artworks maintain their material existence in the seemingly atemporal space of the gallery. These excesses are left behind by the poet as their poem is ‘over’, but the incompleteness of the poet’s endeavour, their failure to fully possess the object-cause of their desire, means that the poem is never ‘finished’. The poet writing a gallery ekphrasis experiences the gallery in the flow of time and brings the still artworks into the present through language expressed by the lineation of the poem: the line becoming, in effect, a time-stamp of the poet’s experience of the gallery. This capacity which the poetic line possesses to present this failure in time, is the essential expression of the poet’s joissance. Žižek defines joissance as an ‘excess of enjoyment as the goal-in-itself’, which suggests the poet is freed by the inability to complete the task of representation to a purposeful end (2016). Essentially, it is this lack of closure, this failure, which opens up the space for the poetic line to be the evidence of the process of the ‘searching itself’.

There are three main instances in the gallery ekphrasis of Gallery of Antique Art and ‘Dark Heart’ where the time in which the poet is writing disturbs the stilled time of the artwork. Firstly, this occurs in instances when the real world interrupts the imagined world of the artwork, as is present in the sonic imagery explored by each poet. Secondly, it occurs when the flow of time in the poet’s experience is broken by a stationary meditation on the immobility of the artwork, such as an apostrophe or returned focus to the work of performing the ekphrastic poem. Thirdly, it occurs when the poet exercises their evaluative agency and through some critical stance offers resistance against the artworks’ illusory properties.

To examine the first of these disturbances and to approach the gallery ekphrasis sonically, ‘Ekphrasis and Representation’ by James Heffernan recalls the term prosopopoeia as the rhetorical technique of envoicing a silent object’ (1991: 302). In this tradition, Hetherington writes of Pietà’s ‘unspeakable utterance’ (2016: 8) which remains within his own hermetic loop of inaccessibility. Hetherington is writing about a work of art which we understand to lack the capacity for verbal speech, but further to this point is that his work of ekphrasis is ‘notional’, a term to denote that the artwork being written about is a creation of the poet’s own imagination or a reconstruction from memory. This double-muteness, through the reader’s assumption of mute-physicality and the poet’s own concealment/revealing of an imaginary (or rather ‘incomplete’) object within the poem, is an allusion to the poet’s own exercise in indeterminacy, as it is doubly impossible to ‘understand’ what it is the artwork might be trying to say and to translate this adequately through the poem.

Concerning the line and how this may provide a way of addressing such indeterminacy, by writing in the prose poem format, Hetherington suggests a unique frame for conceptualising the shape of the poem as a ‘room’. He expands on this with the following definition from his collaboration with Cassandra Atherton, ‘Rooms and Spaces: the Still Movement of Prose Poetry’:

(2) ways in which new prose poems about rooms and spaces by the project collaborators may exemplify how prose poetry may act as either, or both:

(2.1) contained and restrictive ‘rooms’ that enable significant effects of poetic imagery and condensation

(2.2) ‘open’ spaces that enable significant effects of poetic indeterminacy and a ramifying suggestiveness (Hetherington & Atherton 2015: 269)

Certainly the ‘unspeakable utterance’ of Pietà can be read in the sense of room as defined in 2.1. However, it is the way that Hetherington passes from one ‘room’ to another (one prose poem to another) within his created ‘gallery’ (sequence of poems) that suggests the utilisation of the prose poem form to ‘open’ the poem out for the occurrence of indeterminacy as alluded to in 2.2. Through the traversal of many different rooms, including breaks for ‘Interlude and Reflection’ within the created space of Gallery of Antique Art, Hetherington’s speaking subject is similarly open.

Fittingly, it is during one such meandering that a painting does speak. In ‘Ninth Room (Perambulation)’, the sequence is as follows:

I’m standing quietly and a painting speaks—of how
there were floods for nearly a week and not far from
here the Tiber rose. But, after all, a tour’s arrived and
a guide’s instructing her group: ‘It’s neat how he’s
painted her feet.’ (Hetherington 2016: 26)

This comic interruption, the rupture of the contemplative moment where the poet is engaged in listening to the artwork, serves to remind us of the importance of detours in the gallery ekphrastic poem. Truly, it is failure of this well intended attempt at contemplation which reminds us of the gap between the ‘ideal’ and the unexpected.

What Thomas Shapcott describes as the ‘immediacy’ of the prose-poetic form, is captured in the ‘present tense’ of the writing style, as if writing ‘I am doing this, this is happening to me’ (2002). By contrasting the diegetic sound of the tour guide with the imagined sound of the subject in the painting, the gallery-ekphrasis-as-prose-poem is concerned with capturing the process of its own production. Shapcott’s conditions could equally be applied to the process poem which embodies a poetics of immediacy and indeterminacy, such as Fred Moramarco sketches in his essay ‘John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara: The Painterly Poets’, that ‘Art has always been occupied with the universal, these artists seem to be telling us, but life continues to serve up a steady diet of particulars’ (1976: 444). As Marjorie Perfloff detects in O’Hara’s ‘I do this, I do that poems’, particularly in her close reading of ‘Music’, it is the equal attention given to the images presented in the poem that allows the noumenal and the phenomenal to exist side by side as ‘the poet’s self remains a constant centre’ (1977: 122). It is worth highlighting how the intrusion of the physical world into the mental world of the poem’s composition can be viewed in ‘Dark Heart’ in a manner that by allowing for detours is theoretically akin to Hetherington, but stylistically distinct.

Whilst Gallery of Antique Art produces a map of the gallery through its narrated meanderings, ‘Dark Heart’ provides a map of the mind. The shape of ‘Dark Heart’, like the progression of thought, is not linear. As David Dick notes, Bolton’s ‘characteristically fractured step lines’, have the effect of generating a sensation of lived indeterminacy (2014). The precedent for this is in the ‘all over’ poetry of O’Hara, that as an appropriation of the Abstract Expressionists’ attempt to convey ‘pure’ (non-representational) emotional experience, the poem becomes the ‘experience of an experience’ through its arrangement (Silverberg 2016: 102).

Bolton’s ekphrasis is a reluctant one, as quantitatively, on the surface ‘Dark Heart’ appears to be much more a poem about whistling bop than it is about the 2014 Art Gallery of South Australia Biennial. Importantly, it is about the corporeal effect that whistling has on the poet, rather than the sounds of the songs themselves:

                                      ‘You’re
My Thrill’.  Then
                   ‘Couldn’t It Be You’—
                                     I wonder what
the connection is —
                  the key, the pattern,
                                     somehow relates? 
Its
                  calming effect
                                     when I whistle it.  (Bolton 2016)

The poem’s attempt to comprehend the links between ‘You’re My Thrill’ and ‘Couldn’t It Be You’ are of more importance to the poet than ‘the art at hand’. The connection supposedly is the ‘calming effect’ generated whilst whistling it. By performing the songs, rather than simply listening to them or describing them, this experience is a way of taking ownership of the melodies in a form of the creative/interpretive drive that is resistant to the inaccessibility of the original referent (the songs themselves, but equally, the Biennial). The manner in which his step lines perform this meandering of mind is vital to understanding his gallery experience, in which the poem develops gradually, much like a sonic motif returning to the same themes throughout.

Like the whistled theme that recurs as a tic, Bolton is constantly drawing himself back to the task of writing about the exhibition: ‘What / to do about this / art?’, ‘So / resignation, ‘getting on with things’’, and ‘This / art then, / what to do about it?’, which not only highlights his distraction, but serves to register his critical displeasure with the exhibition (2016). He begins by stating his task to write a review about the exhibition, but is quick to digress, admitting ‘I would rather / write something else.’ He continues:

                                              I whistle
bop a bit
                  try not to think
                                     of the
vast tide of crap
                  the exhibition represents (Bolton 2016)

This injunction expresses a resistance to the exhibition and what is contained within in it. Yet his attention is ultimately focused, not on the exhibition, but on the poem itself (recalling Jagodzinski’s stress on the ‘search itself’). Schuster in ‘The Trouble with Pleasure’ describes tics as ways of ‘draining the overflow of emotional excitement caused by thinking itself, an excess of energy that, if pent up, would impede the flow of ideas and disrupt the concentration’ (2016: 120).  As evidence of the poem’s concentration, we need look no further than the way that the lines are broken in ‘Dark Heart’. Enjambment is able to effect what Allen Ginsberg called a ‘mind breath’ in the way that William Carlos Williams’ triadic line poems echo the intonational function of speech (Gerber 2007). Consider how the ‘getting back to it’ motif is broken here: ‘This / art then, / what to do about it?’ A solitary determiner, ‘This’, should situate the reader in the immediate physical space of the poet’s experience, yet this is undercut by its lineation: the word’s function is destabilised due to its isolated appearance on the page. The line break that follows ‘This’, suggests a hesitation to return to the task of review. Still, contrast this with the resolving line when the conceit of the poem rushes its apotheosis: ‘But then / I am whistling the wrong tune’ (Bolton 2016). The second line is uncharacteristically long for the poem, but it accentuates the poet’s self-satisfaction in marrying the sonic preoccupation of whistling as a tic with the idiomatic registering of a differing opinion.

The variety and unpredictability of Bolton’s line creates a tension about where the stress will fall and whether or not the phrase he has begun will resolve. This irresolution creates an indeterminacy akin to Corbett’s feeling like ‘something is over, but not finished’ in the poetry of Schuyler. Bolton’s motifs build through repetition that create anxiety about reaching a conclusion. Only at the end of the poem is the poet able to reflect on what he has produced, realising that it was the (willingly) failed process of attempting to possess and translate the artwork contained in the exhibition that ultimately has produced the poem:

Today I worried happily,
               wrote stuff, ‘asseverated’,
                                  was alive (Bolton 2016)

The anxiety that line creates is not unique to the stepped lines of Bolton, as Hetherington and Atherton attest in ‘‘Unconscionable Mystification’?: Rooms, Spaces and the Prose Poem’, the prose poem, ‘…looks like prose on the page – a seemingly innocuous paragraph – but the anxiety comes from realising it is something else’ (2015: 274). Yet, as Dick describes, Bolton’s poetry contains, ‘immediate expression in the service of capturing the unsteady, distracted and forgetful mind as it thinks on its own movements, various subjects and the self-aware creation of the poem’ (2014). Essentially, the poets by meandering create a feeling of nervous energy that is captured by the shape of their poem.

Like the ‘dark smudged stain’ across the sky in Bolton’s poem, the prose poetry of Hetherington is tinted by Murray Krieger’s theory of Ekphrasis as ‘still movement’, ‘where the temporal flow of narrative is frozen in an effort to ape the materiality of the spatial arts’ (Bolton 2016; Scott 1992: 216). Certainly, the prose poem appears most apposite to this logic as its rectangular shape evokes the spatial limit of a framed canvas, or the seal of a room’s constant architecture. Both the art-object metaphor and the architectural metaphor are appropriate to Gallery of Antique Art, as this statement from ‘Unconscionable Mystification(?)’ suggests:

Indeed, the poem’s rectangular shape on the page is reminiscent – as are so many prose poems – of looking from above at a room’s plan and being given access to part of that room’s resonant multiplicities – particularly those that involve personal histories and activities (Hetherington & Atherton 2015: 271)

My reading of the ‘freeze’ in Krieger follows James Heffernan’s, in that any poem that seeks to break this representational-descriptive tradition must be excluded from Krieger’s definition that ‘treats ekphrasis as a way of freezing time in space’ (1991: 301). As Heffernan contends, the temporal import of language is naturally resistant to the stasis of an art-object. Although the prose poem has the spatial qualities of a ‘still’ object and could be considered Kriegerian in a material sense, Hetherington’s process qua production, brings the artworks into the present moment of his poem. The prose poem’s compression of space captures the ‘room’s’ ‘resonant multiplicities’ where ‘personal histories and activities’ are performed.

Materially, it would appear that Bolton’s line is incompatible with Krieger’s spatial metaphor as it sprawls across the page, rather than remaining in the condensed rectangular shape of a prose-poem. Yet, consider what Pam Brown says of Bolton’s line:

Ken lets his poems follow their own direction, many roaming across the pages as a kind of streamed collage takes shape, making them into exceptional visual works amply surrounded by white space (Brown 2011)

Despite the stylistic contrast between Bolton and Hetherington, the experience of movement captured and performed on the page can be applied to both poets’ gallery ekphrastic poems. It is the visual property of Bolton’s lines arranged in their own unique way that allow ‘Dark Heart’ to create itself as its own original object, as Hetherington’s compressed concrete shapes are similarly original objects that capture a poet’s meandering and sustain an openness to indeterminacy.

By creating the gallery ekphrastic poem as a new object the poets highlight their independence from the space of the gallery, a space that they are able to walk out of, by generating the poem as the site for the performance of their evaluative agency. Early in Gallery of Antique Art, Hetherington asserts his autonomy, writing, ‘…we can choose not to believe it’, and then returning to this line of thinking, ‘We can decide to accept beauty close to where we stand. Exhausted we’re ready to step into dirty streets and redolent decay’ (2016: 4). Similarly, Bolton’s resistance to the exhibition and its intended effects are emphasised in ‘Dark Heart’ as the ‘vast tides of crap this exhibition represents’ to the poet (2016).

Whilst Hetherington writes ‘there is never enough time to understand the art’, for both poets, it is the unfeasibility of the task of absolute interpretation which fuels their creative/interpretive drive (2016: 42).  That their time (the time of the poem) is the time of the meandering ‘search itself’, the performance of this failure ultimately becomes the originally creative/interpretive object of the gallery ekphrastic poem. The poem remains potently and assertively indeterminate in light of the incommensurable gap between the timeless properties of the gallery’s contents and the poet’s experience, as the line performs this meandering through the gallery in the poem itself. 

 

 

Works cited: 

 

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