The original poetry in this hybrid critical/creative paper seeks to find acts of making that are equivalent or complementary to those of other art forms and to construct poems which respond not just in their content but in their structures, leading to a radical ekphrasis. It argues that this strategy makes for invigorated writing. The topic of ekphrasis finds numerous references in the literature of the last thirty years, but definitions of ekphrasis have narrowed since the term’s use in ancient times. It now has a particularly close association with the visual arts. It was formerly widely understood as a poetic response to any other form of art (Francis 2009), with no special importance placed on the visual work of art (Webb 2009: 11), but rather with a general ability to make a scene vivid. These poetic experiments attempt to balance the modern impetus to respond ekphrastically with the ancient understanding; they react to works of graphic design, journalism, Indigenous painting, as well as sculpture and installations, and notional ekphrasis. These poetic experiments explore Olson’s dictum that form is never more than an extension of content (1972: 338) and Hejinian’s equally important idea that ‘form is not a fixture but an activity’ (1983), and end by evaluating how the intention to find new structures has affected the content of the poetry.
Keywords: Poetry – ekphrasis – form – experiment
As poets, we look for new ways to expand the scope of our work, both in form and content, to inhabit new spaces in language. Other art forms often amaze and inspire us. In my own practice, I find myself wanting to write in some way that matches the force or energy of other art works. It is unsatisfying to respond to another art work merely by producing poetic content which is derivative. Surely, if I am to respond fully and successfully, I need to allow that other work to impact the structure of my writing, as well as its content, and I argue that this strategy will make for invigorated writing. It should have the effect of breaking writing habits and creating fresh modes of expression.
Since writing from a place of otherness is a significant dynamic of poetry, with commentators as diverse as Anthony Easthope (1983: 37-38) and Hélène Cixious (1986: 84-85) asserting its importance, it is likely we are drawn to the visual arts as a stimulus, because of its very difference to what we do as poets. In contrast, to write a poem in reaction to a song is to move in similar terrain which already privileges the aural, and is almost the same as reacting to another poem. This would make the work less clearly ekphrastic, the approach explicitly under consideration here, and further treated by the expressed concern to achieve a radical ekphrasis that affects form as well as content. But, of course, I begin with a contemporary perception of what constitutes ekphrasis.
Poets often respond to other art forms, and the topic of ekphrasis has been much visited in the literature of the last thirty years. It now has a particularly close association with the visual arts. But definitions of ekphrasis have narrowed. It was formerly widely understood as a much broader poetic response not limited to the visual (Francis 2009: 10).
Separate pieces of research by James Francis and Ruth Webb give some idea of just how much the view has narrowed, and how relatively new is the understanding of ekphrasis as a response to visual art. The description of Achilles’ shield in Homer’s Iliad is often cited as one of the earliest examples of ekphrasis, but it is only so in the modern definition. Francis tells us that theories on the subject from Greeks commentators of the first three centuries of the common era placed no special emphasis on the work of art, ekphrasis being ‘evocative description pure and simple’ (2009: 2). Webb confirms this assertion with a similar statement: ‘works of art as a category are of no particular importance’ (2009: 11). Vivid description is prized, and is synonymous with the term enargeia, whose Latin equivalent is evidentia – indicative of its specific qualities (Francis 2009: 3). Francis quotes Theon from the first century CE: ‘Ekphrasis is descriptive language, bringing what is portrayed clearly before the sight.’ Ruth Webb quotes the same source as the most representative (2009: 11).
The dialogue between modern and ancient forms of ekphrasis has further been confused by the lack of recognition of ekphrasis being situated in rhetorical forms – and overemphasis on texts – when speaking of ancient storytelling modes which operated without them. Ancient ekphrasis included the subversion of narrative within its descriptions; there is no distinction between actual and so-called ‘notional ekphrasis’ – writing about an imagined artwork – of modern theory (Francis 2009: 6). The context of the description of Achilles’ Shield is not a static appreciation of the completed work but rather the dynamic process of the god fabricating it, and the description of such scenes is not limited to the visual (Frances 2009: 9-10). Webb confirms that enargeia is central to ekphrasis, and paraphrases Quintillian (1st century CE) to the effect that the orator achieves this effect when he ‘uses his own power of imagination to conjure up a scene in his mind’; it is literally ‘to tell (phrazo) in full (ek)’ (2009: 13). This is a compelling idea: to tell in full. And, similarly to Quintillian, Dionysius asserted that vividly descriptive writing which appealed to the senses could give the reader a sense of being witness to events described (Zanker 2003: 60-61).
The use of description in ancient texts did not distinguish between objects and narrative (Webb 2009: 12). Narrative is bound up with the visual, just as it speaks from the aural, so that the two are not at odds but both necessary to produce the poem (Francis 2009: 17). Peter Barry states that ekphrasis is ‘emblematic of all poetry’ in the way it has to make do with engaging with representations of the real, ekphrasis being a kind of ‘intermediary’ (2002: 156-157). Likewise, Brinzeu describes ekphrasis as being a mediator between different codes verbal and visual, defined, semiotically, by Jakobson as ‘intersemiotic translation’ or ‘transmutation’ of verbal and non-verbal signs, which is necessarily incomplete (2005: 247-248).
Ultimately, what is concerning is understandings of ekphrasis which limit movement, which have been described as ‘a point of stillness’ (Francis 2009: 5), whose subject is ‘still, objectified’ (Webb 2009: 12), rather than dynamic. Mere representation is likely to be sterile; the ability of one medium to represent another is so limited that the term ‘ekphrastic indifference’ (Mitchell 1994: 3) was coined to suggest the limitation. Whilst this is inescapable on one level, Francis points out that the work of the craftsman Hephaestus and the poet Homer means that the visual and aural are interwoven in the Iliad in dynamic ways (Francis 2009: 11-12).
It is clear that the emphasis on the visual has some foundation, since the ancient poets who valued ekphrasis and enargeia wanted us to be able to see the scenes described vividly. But two important points can be made here: we do not have to be limited to visual descriptions; and we can embrace notional ekphrasis (a modern term but an old practice) as freely as the ancients, another option in the range of possible narratives. This might also include what Peter Barry has termed ‘conceptual ekphrasis’, for works which are not only fictional (notional) but could not have existed (2002: 156).
Equipped with a contemporary drive to find new forms and content, and reminded of the ancient understanding of ekphrasis as telling in full, the original poetry in this hybrid critical/creative paper reacts to works of graphic design, journalism, Indigenous painting, as well as sculpture and installations and painting, and celebrates notional ekphrasis. Discussion also includes comments on the editing process to further illustrate poetic strategies.
Since I am seeking structures which reflect the impact of other forms of art, I am conscious of theories of form. The poems examine Charles Olson’s dictum that form is never more than an extension of content ( 1972: 338), from the famous essay ‘Projective verse’. Olson’s idea was a distillation of things that a range of other poets had been doing for some time in pursuing the new directions that free verse seemed to offer, for example, Walt Whitman with his long, rhythmic but prose-like lines; Emily Dickinson with her irregular beats and half-rhymes, experiments with word stacks and punctuation; Stéphane Mallarmé’s revolution with page space and, later, Guillaume Apollinaire’s graphic experiments; Gerard Manley Hopkins creating his own sprung rhythms; Ezra Pound’s imagism inspired by Chinese and Japanese poetry; Pound and TS Eliot’s multi-referential collage poetry celebrating the fragment and intertextuality (traits of postmodernism); Gertrude Stein’s made notable experiments with prose and poetry; Mina Loy with line composition; ee cummings with layout, word fragments and punctuation; and William Carlos Williams’ with use of line to mirror content and, later, to capture particular speech rhythms.
We know that ‘free’ verse is not really free at all; these examples are of extremely exacting work. In trying to find a form that follows and accords with content, there is much labour. Olson’s is still a significant idea, and one which was reasserted in a more nuanced way by Lyn Hejinian when she wrote that, ‘form is not a fixture but an activity’ (1983). This is a spur to writing preoccupations around form and a way of handling the presumed freedom of free verse and its overwhelming responsibility. Similarly, poets like CK Stead (in 1981) have commented that poetry is a quality rather than a form or fixed product (1981: 148-149), which is another qualitative consideration to bear in mind, especially when we are making those transmutations between verbal and visual forms.
At a panel discussion on ekphrasis at the Poetry on the Move Festival 2017 an audience member raised a question that echoed my concerns for a more radical ekphrasis. Of the four panellists, only one, Ravi Shankar, had spoken about an art form other than the visual arts, i.e. music. The audience member asked why so little was said about the other art forms, and also asked whether there weren’t ways in which other practices could be reflected more deeply in poetry, perhaps in its structure. Interestingly, that audience member was Sarah Rice, a Canberra poet who, as well as being an expert on art history, is a musician and former music teacher with a broad interest in other art forms. Her question encouraged me and my search for a radical ekphrasis began with reference to the first episode of a remarkable documentary series on design processes.
Graphic design through the documentary film: Abstract: The art of design
The sparse palette of words in the following poem responds to the minimalist works of illustration by Christoph Niemann. These block poems disturb lineation. They use space in the way the illustrator seemed to do, and the layout owes much to his discrete placement of marks and lines on a page. The starting point was writing in a plum-coloured notebook, with the words ‘sugar-free book’ on its cover (I was trying to give up sugar at the time).
OF THE STREET
TO THE WELL
A programmatic strategy emerged. The use of only ten words per poem was intended to complement the minimalism further, coupled with the absence of connecting terms, so that the words which are used – usually nouns and verbs – have to do a great deal of work (and realise a broad semiotic potential). The structure of the first poem emerges from the content which first responds to Niemann, and sets the form for the rest of the sequence. In this sense, the first poem only follows Olson’s dictum. The programmatic strategy set in place by that form then forces creation into some unusual spaces; this is form as activity, as Hejinian descried.
Being able to place only one word at a time slowed down the writing process, though this was still loose enough to be able free associate, but it meant being very choosy about word choice and the resulting poem was edited rather less than in the long process of redrafting that I more commonly face.
The plum colour could also be pink. ‘Riff raff’ followed by another ‘raff’ suggests a barking sound (which would creep into other parts of the poem). In the second stanza, the second ‘line’ refers to the fact that there’s no single meaning in a text, a self-conscious reflection that I wished to exploit with free associations. It’s also a cheeky allusion to the word ‘soul’ and the frustration I’ve sometimes found with poets using the word, which, in common with many abstractions, assumes a level of shared understanding which doesn’t necessarily exist. I’ve often challenged poets to say more about what they mean by words like ‘soul’. An excellent strategy which evolved following one such discussion was to come up with a metaphor for the soul (likewise for other large concepts such as ‘God’).
In ‘BLOCK’, the word ‘sole’ can suggest fish, so that the group of sounds can be a tide, going in and out, with the accompanying hint of moving in and out of references. In the third stanza, the repetition of ‘wire’ enacts their presence. The sound of the dog is the detail we hear, ‘dog’ is merely a thought (rather than part of an experience). The garden bed is an interruption, but not unconnected. The poem uses ‘eye lines’ to create ‘sound lines’; minimalism, rather like Niemann’s, has taken hold.
In stanza four, the repetition of glare, suggests extra shininess: ‘glare glare’ is stronger than mere ‘glare’. Gradually the context of a courtyard garden builds up, as we glimpse the crepe myrtle and the tomatoes. The glare is so bad it makes the eyes weep, but added to the reference to eyes is the threat (to fruit) of the rat. It’s now our eyes on the rat, or the rat’s eyes on the fruit.
Stanza five begins unashamedly philosophic, but is brought down to earth by Dave speaking. What does Dave say? Do we merely agree? One exploits the homonyms ‘here’ and ‘hear’. Again, we come back to experience: here are the ants.
The sound of a dog returns in stanza six. What should have been ‘sickle moon’ and typed as ‘sickle motor’ is an error that is reincorporated for the reverse engineering of ‘motorcycle’, the word ‘motor’ then takes the writing to a contrast with birdsong, and flies, as the verb ‘flies’ relates to ‘motor’. Accepting the mistake is a strategy often employed by poets (see, for example, Crawford 2016).
Hidden, semiotically, in the ‘calibre’ of stanza seven, the text finds ‘excalibur’, hence ‘sword’. Such junctions seem to occur particularly frequently where the writing is pared back to just ten words. Likewise ‘coaster’ contains ‘coast’, just as ‘coaster / coast’ contains ‘coast to coast’. I am reminded of the statement by Johanna Drucker to the effect that it is hard to describe where, in a text, the visual and oral begin and end – their relationships with each other are so complex (1998: 106). Of course, ‘kneels’ and ‘award’ both relate to the idea of ‘excalibur’ (which is still only latently present). ‘Consummate’ is an odd word choice; perhaps about sitting being all that is desired.
In stanza eight, the size of London and its ubiquitous presence in memory is emphasised by repetition. Use of page space is particularly important here, for moving backwards and forwards in time. Not wanting to retain the word ‘memory’, since it is a shortcut abstract that comes too easily, it is struck-through in the edit. It is no longer a memory. Perhaps one should also edit out ‘cider’ (by giving it up), so that it doesn’t cross out memory.
In stanza nine, ‘Encrust’ is a reaction to ‘memory’. The ‘crust’ latent in ‘encrust’ suggests lichen – surely one of the crustiest things on earth. It, in turn, gives rise to yellow and trousers, with attendant beliefs about acceptable clothing, and what that says about us (semiotically). It also forms reference to the fact that one of Christoph Niemann’s favourite colours is yellow (also, black) – he often uses Lego in these colours to plan his ideas, favouring the restriction it offers. The homonym ‘dye’ for ‘die’ suggests dying of embarrassment. But there’s also a silly assertion here on my part that ‘real men’ can wear yellow, i.e. they’re not insecure.
Stanza ten’s ‘house’ suggested to me a kind of crumbling which led to house-surgeon (perhaps the yellow needs to be cut out of me). We’re washed and cut in the laundry, and I think of the ruin to one side of the house I grew up in, which was never restored (just as our failed shower was abandoned after a handful of attempts at using it). And all is now rubble and the well covered up. Avalon. The well. Excalibur. It all connects, curiously, in the persistence of memory.
Journalism: BBC news online
News stories which disturb me often suggest poetic subjects, but how to render them in an original or fitting way? One example was an item on BBC News online about the poaching of elephants. Initially, prose poetry seemed the obvious form to adopt. Repeatedly, though, as I revised the poem I felt there was something not quite right about the form, that it was not yet distinct enough. I often advise my students not to use journalistic single-sentence paragraphs in essays. But this wasn’t an essay, and single-sentence paragraphs were exactly what I needed. Even so, the resulting poem seemed to fail, overall, in achieving dynamic form or content, and I have not reproduced it here.
A second piece concerns reports from the US about Trump’s idea of building a wall around America and a rampaging killer in Kansas. The two stories are juxtaposed as you would experience different news items and further contrasted with more innocent events in Canberra – the link being that both locations involve helicopters. The poem takes the form of a haibun, a hybrid form which utilises glancing relationships between terse prose and haiku:
taking them for a ride
at the showgrounds
The President focusses on “getting bad people out of this country.” To build a wall, a wall to Mexico.
at the end of a cross pole
“Get out of my country,” the gunman says in a bar in Kansas, as he shoots and kills an Asian Indian man who’s lived and worked in America for years. The gunman wounds a local who tries to intervene and flees the interstate border. Eventually he’s arrested.
his mouth turned down . . .
a helicopter whirrs in the distance
Events at home in Canberra are represented by the first two haiku. In an earlier draft, the final haiku was part of the prose; I had inadvertently folded prose and potential haiku imagery together, but in revisions felt that peeling the haiku out of the prose would help clarify the different images.
The sense of pattern in works by Indigenous artists like Paddy Jaminji and Kitty Kantilla (viewed at the National Gallery of Australia) delights and inspires me, and it’s this element for which I wanted to find a poetic parallel. I turned to Turkish rhythms for a solution. I wrote two poems. The first in a heavy 4/4 rhythm called the Baladi (or small Masmoudi): DD TkT DtkTtk. The initial effect of the poem is a simple highlighting of sound expressed in the desire to find a match for the rhythm and equivalents for the ornaments of that percussion style. Structurally, the poem seems strong, but the content proved rather weak.
A second poem begins in the 2/4 Ayoub rhythm DktkDT (DktkD) and, after four stanzas, switches to a syncopated version of this rhythm (DkkDktk) for two stanzas and then returns to the regular 2/4 beat.
didn’t take a walk
didn’t take a rest
couldn’t find a kin
couldn’t take a test
wouldn’t let the ease
wouldn’t balk the tough
shouldn’t be at home
mustn’t have enough
position just to fight it
limit working solo
ocean to extend a
with a raking kick
did take a risk
did follow through
can make a
can beckon you
would let a bun
would be working hard
should find the glori-
must future come
The marching rhythm forced rapid composition, and the poem itself moves quickly. The original ‘couldn’t find a kin / soul’ but edited it to ‘kin match’ to avoid slipping into the habit of abstraction, and because ‘match’ also suggested ‘spark’.
The syncopation attempts to capture a sense of awkwardness in the content: ‘took a / position just to fight it’, at that moment when the sense of the poem changes. It seems as though content is an extension of form here, but they are more happily conjoined that in the first poem. An image of migration follows the reference to passion in a new land (for me, the migration to Aotearoa New Zealand from the United Kingdom in my early twenties). The ‘raking effort’ evokes the language of the rugby pitch and the ‘raking kick’ that commentators love in that country.
Initially inspired by Indigenous art, this poem moved to yet another form to find its structure and to make use of connections between pattern and rhythm.
Painting/ installation/ sculpture
The first section of this poem responds to a desert scene for which I’ve unfortunately lost the reference, but it’s from the Artists of the Great War Exhibition (2017), again at the National Gallery of Australia. The second responds to an installation by Xu Zhen Play 201301, a medieval castle suspended on ropes made entirely from bondage materials. The third was also from the Contemporary China exhibition (2017).
push the noise away
father and son through the desert
light comes from many directions
looks at the other’s ink blots
wondering if they’re better
learn rules of engagement
(no one remembers to tell you)
they look alike they’re the same height
but they’re not
they have the same haircut
but they don’t
hangs in the air
a studded abyss
an exterior surface D-rings
that won’t let you in
spikes keep off
a padded seat but no sitting
the gods –
in stone a dozen times
The first poem in the sequence responds to brush strokes as lines; to the lines of the desert, and to horizons. It assumes a shape a little like a head on the page, and a little like the letter ess – think Superman, for the way the father figure can seem that to a son.
It seemed the second poem had to be sculpted, to mimic the castle, which I called a citadel, just as the third piece had to be a plinth. In viewing the original installation of the castle, I’m afraid I was very able to screen all references to bondage, it simply seemed an empty space to me, no more or less a city than any other, but redundant for having no people in it. The plinth talks about replacing the gods, all we have left is the plinth itself, and monumental places and spaces, like the gallery itself. The poems respond by being shaped, literally, by these artworks.
Employing notional ekphrasis
The concept of notional ekphrasis can be embraced for its ability to stir the imagination. The idea for the next poem was first conceived as an installation concept, one which I did not have time to attempt in that form, but attempted, instead, as a poem. Accentuating the imaginative component, the idea is given to an unlikely subject: the Icelandic power lifter, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, who won the World’s Strongest Man competition on four occasions. In this imagining, he is also an artist:
Jón Páll Sigmarsson’s first installation is a mobile phone standing twelve feet high. You type the letter A by pulling down a lever which takes all your strength. Activate letter B by lifting a 30 litre bucket of water from a shelf at chest height. Clock letter C by sawing through a 40cm log with a bow saw. A message can take an hour. The exhibit relays what you’ve written to a real cellphone which sends the message, though there might be network problems. Sigmarsson’s work will be tremendously popular, the gallery owners tell me.
(Bullock 2017: 31)
The emphasis on a structure in the content of the poem leads the text to the de-structuring of prose poetry, since the idea is installed in an alternative mode. It is written almost like exhibition notes, or a report on an exhibition. The poem is also an example of Barry’s ‘conceptual ekphrasis’.
I attempted other notional ekphrastic poems which extended the background to the creation of a fictitious artwork even further, into fantasy and drama, but to the point of no longer representing the imagined artwork directly, concentrating rather on the means of their production. In these cases they really became something else, tangentially related to ekphrastic poetry.
In these experiments, Olson’s idea that form is never more than an extension of content has been examined implicitly where I have explored the ways in which the modes of other art forms could affect the structures of my own poems. On the whole, though, I have been engaged in trying to create forms for the poems suggested by the other forms to which the poems respond ekphrastically. In some cases, this has occurred at the expense of content, since the form has been established and imposed by the mode of the other art form. In the poem ‘BLOCK’ form is initially raised by content and then made into a program for the rest of the poem. This is probably not inconsistent with the approach taken by other poets in different situations, where an initial impetus gives shape to what follows, but it complicates and subverts Olson’s idea. The form and content of ‘Riding’ seem quite interconnected or interchangeable. In ‘Ayoub’, ‘Originary’ and ‘Installing’, the forms are imposed on the content, rather than the other way around. It is truer to say that the poems are engaged in an activity relating to form in the manner Hejinian describes.
Although in this series, I attempted to write about non-visual art forms as much as possible, responses to the visual still tended to predominate. This tends to confirm the suspicion mentioned earlier, that, poetry being a largely aural art form, the visual arts make for a greater sense of contrast with it. In some ways, this is not the conclusion I expected or hoped to retain, but is a realistic reflection given the outcomes.
I have tried to inform the poetry offered here by responding to other works of art in ways that affect its structure as well as its content, and to keep it refreshed by enargeia. I have tried to tell in as full a way as possible, whilst adopting slightly different strategies and forms for each piece. Inhabiting language is, for me, intrinsically about inhabiting form, and this attempt at a radical ekphrasis is part of an ongoing attempt to keep my poetry invigorated, and has been successful in some cases, though not in all. The achievement often falls short of the aim, and I fear that the emphasis on structure is sometimes made at the expense of convincing content, most notably in the poems ‘BLOCK’ and ‘Ayoub’. Arguably, ‘BLOCK’ does not stand well alone without the kinds of descriptions I’ve given it, its connections perhaps proving too tenuous to be convincing. In performance, the use of intonation makes those slight links rather more pronounced, and the poem has received surprisingly good feedback from audience members. Another famous idea of Olson’s that the use of page space includes the ability to create a musical score on the page is relevant here (1972: 339), but perhaps it is performance that gives the work its full force. ‘Ayoub’ is a popular performance piece, and perhaps that is how it will remain. Ironically, that poem takes the composition of poetry back to music and the lyric and fails to break any new ground on the page. But experiment is necessary, I would assert, and the attempt at a radical ekphrasis, even if it fails, or is shown to be less radical than works by Mallarmé or Stein, invites practitioners to revisit an intense engagement with ekphrasis which accommodates its ancient and contemporary understandings.
Abstract: The art of design 2017 Scott Dadich, dir. Radical Media/Tremelo Productions, for Netflix 2017
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http://complit.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/COL1000-Week11-Nov25_WJT_Mitchell.pdf; originally in Picture theory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
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