New Welsh Review
Ekphrasis and Ekphrasis
When Homer, like others before him, chose to evoke every physical detail of Achilles’s elaborately embossed shield in The Iliad he was indulging in the art of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the description of an artwork, the distilling into words of a visual representation. It is poetry that continues the work of translation the artwork began. It is more common in poetry than in fiction; perhaps because poetry can formally recreate some of the properties of a work of art. Achilles’s shield locates the theoretical recognition of ekphrasis in ancient poetics and the history of rhetoric.
The difficulty of ekphrasis, the inherent risk of so much lost in translation, is overcome in imagination when language achieves that hardest of tasks and helps us to see. Keats understood this when he wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn. His poem brings into view the narrative adorning the urn, and so the urn itself: “To what green altar, O mysterious priest, / Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies.” Shelley went even further when he wrote On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery: not only are the physical details of Leonardo’s painting transcribed, but also the very atmosphere they combine to produce; “…and the midnight sky / Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.” Given that much Romantic poetry inclined naturally to protracted meditations on the visual, such ekphrastic techniques were constantly employed in the genre. Keats and Shelley assumed that the source of metaphor should be something beautiful; perception based upon a combination of spoken rhetoric and verbal cues.
But ekphrasis is also a problem. On one level it might be deemed impossible. A verbal translation cannot represent — that is, make present again — its object with the same degree of effectiveness a visual image can. Or perhaps in some ways it can do it better because it doesn’t pretend to reproduce so much as evoke it. However brilliantly a poem is devised, it will rarely have the immediacy a picture does: imagine trying to describe a view of Table Mountain over the radio. Something that is authentically breathtaking — pre-linguistic in the fact that it takes away the breath — might well be reduced to the status of the word ‘breathtaking.’ The describer might even resort to the job of ironising irony by using the phrase “it is beyond words.” In this sense, ekphrasis is a minor and rather obscure literary genre, and most writers who use it tacitly or consciously recognise that language is a lesser medium. It is difficult not to conclude that it grew out of a kind of envy of the visual, pointing up the extreme limitations of language; that it is the expression of a kind of blindness, fingering the braille of the visual.
Ekphrasis, for poets writing today, however, serves a more slippery purpose than the uses it was put to by Keats and Shelley. Visual culture shifts at breakneck speed. Speeded-up images refuse to settle for more than a nanosecond. The paintings no longer stand still. By the time you start describing them, they are whisked away – lost between a polevaulter hovering in mid air and a sperm whale about to plunge. Probably the vast majority of contemporary poets have had their sensibility shaped by television, cinema and the World Wide Web more than anything else. Everywhere the visual provokes, escapes and always returns. Achilles’s shield is buckled into a new and unrecognisable shape, and Keats’s urn has been smashed and glued back together as the ur-urn, broken-lipped, beaten up by history. The visual dominates the popular consciousness as never before. Largely as a result of the Internet, image and text, pictures and poetic thought (or at least a species of poetic thought) have been brought together as never before, as if ekphrasis is finally honouring the pledges it has been making to rhetoric since the days of Homer. As a result, ekphrasis has become the transcription of the hyperactive imagination.
For me, as a practitioner, this is a very exciting time to be writing. One I would have chosen. The ultimate challenge is to bring some sort of order out of precisely that flux. Such emphasis on the visual has been the single most important influence on my attempts to harness meaning. From my earliest attempts to write, I have turned to modern cinema for “ekphrastic inspiration.” The malingering camera-angles of Tarkovsky, holding a single frame for what seems like a minute, an hour, a week; the visual grim irony of Scorsese; the single sweeping takes of Sokurov; the lake made of bin-bags, the switching points of view of Fellini; the nonlinear narratives of Bertolucci; the life-changing, hauntingly visual images of Kieslowki. All of these, in their very different ways, have bled their way into my printer cartridge. All of these have taught me something about the machinery of image-making, how the best visual images thrust their moving pistons into a perfectly machined and well oiled bore-hole; how images must have sweep and rhythm and visual passion, majesty and authenticity. Cinema has taught me how a lifetime can be shown in a single frame. How consciousness can zoom from the fish-eyed vision of a desiccated landscape to the crack in the hero’s bottom lip. How it charts the rhythms of the imagination. The great movies, to paraphrase Truffaut, escape like trains in the night. The ekphrastic influences of the cinema and the manner in which its iconography lives in my imagination haunt my work – envy explored on the page.
Two of my poems, very different in nature, explore the range of extended meanings ekphrasis has for me in 2006. The first poem, A Futurist Looks at a Dog, comes from To the God of Rain and, in many ways, is a straightforward example of classical ekphrasis, an example of the written-visual wrestling with meaning on the page, a meaning that has already been established visually by a highly distinguished painting:
A Futurist Looks at a Dog
I do not see godmother’s adoring pet
as you do, nor know him by name; neither can
I keep the present he keeps:
his six little steps to match godmother’s one.
I see instead every stride the dog has made
in the last twenty metres at once,
the sum of strides per second jumbled up
on top of one another - its tail
a cactus of wags, its rapid legs
a sort of tailback of centipedes,
a strobile of stunted steps, a carwash brush,
two bleary propellers rotating.
Above it, the leash in flight is many leashes
whipping and overlapping,
a flung silver net, a soundwave,
each stride a new species of leash;
the dachshund once set in motion
embarks upon another existence,
and godmother’s pet as you know him
vanished twenty, no, thirty strides back.
At first glance, this is an ekphrastic representation of Giacomo Balla’s painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Lead, painted in 1912, a light-hearted study of a dachshund trotting in a flurry of scampering legs and wagging tail alongside the swirls of its mistress’s skirt and knocking of her dainty boots, a painting that has come close to being a kitsch symbol for the Futurist principle of paths of movement. Whereas the poem evokes the painting in some detail, however, it also introduces an interlocutor and the faintest suggestion of narrative, as if this is merely a highly compressed trailer from a much longer story. But also, in ekphrastic terms, there are the ‘cactus of wags’, ‘the carwash brush’, ‘two bleary propellers rotating’, ‘flung silver net’ and ‘a soundwave’ all of which, it seems to me, reach for visual images beyond the painting, separating it firmly from its pre-Flanders historical context and placing it in 2003, representing a range of highly familiar visual objects that are only defamiliarised when placed in the service of a little dog in motion. These are precisely the sorts of otherwise commonplace objects that fly at us daily, subliminally in advertisements, flashed with so much velocity into our minds that we are unable to trace them back to their origin, much less trace the workings of the process that have made them part of our ars poetica. At best, to paraphrase Robert Graves, the original flash of a poem—the first shiver of inspiration—lasts for less than a second, and we may spend years trying to scratch and write our way back to that original, usually falling short but having to make do. The transitions between images, the shifts which seem nakedly cinematic techniques, the same process that has led me to trust on the big screen the transformation of a kimono’s moon into the real moon, hold the poem together. The poem, in the longer arc of the book, pays homage to Futurism for having provided precisely the visual language required for what it was trying to say. It’s an attempt to draw ekphrastic influences from many different sources at once into a unique and dynamic visual crucible. This is not to say that I set out deliberately to achieve this per se, but rather that the influences came together to make up the ‘trance’ out of which the poem grew, out of which poems grow.
‘Description is revelation’ said Michael McLaverty to a young Seamus Heaney in 1962, and ever since I read the phrase for the first time - some considerable period later - it has stayed with me. Were I to draw up some sort of poetic mission-statement such an aphorism would appear in it somewhere. I might even replace the word ‘revelation’ with ‘liturgy’. In my poems, I tend not to go for the symbolical afflatus that grows out of everyday experience; I invest more in the transforming nature of physical description, trusting in the fact that if you describe physical qualities with enough precision they will collect into something approaching liturgy. And this is what ekphrasis most means to me now.
As a technique, as a tactic and a strategy, as a process, all that I have described above has been put to the test in my new book The Blood Choir, to be published this summer. I taught for most of the year 2001 in the second largest Young Offenders’ prison in Europe. Trying to write about this was fraught with sensibilities, pitfalls, political correctness. I wrote more poems in the course of that year than during any previous twelve month period and struggled to find the most appropriate approach. After much prolonged agonising and soul-searching, I put my trust in the innate powers of description, implicitly leaving the rest to the ellipsis of the whole volume, the unspoken ‘elsewheres’ which, it is to be hoped, are drawn into earshot and imagination via ekphrastic description.
Take the title poem, for example. This is a sequence of five sections which evokes the terrifying speed with which a classroom of bored and restless prisoners are drawn up into what can only be described as a mob or, as the poem puts it later, an ‘organism’, glued together by shared assumptions, shared deprivation, shared hunger. Of course, the visual antecedent of this is Francisco Goya, whose painting Pilgrimage of St Isidore, painted 1821-3, captures the moment that individuals seem to be drawn up into one being, bound together by the common experience of what might be awe, fear or potential violence. This sort of ‘event’ recurs in many of his paintings, but is perhaps most effectively achieved in this one. This is the poem’s opening section of five:
The Blood Choir
Consider how a young man sheds his name
and number, his boot blister and tattoo,
his lisp, his wrist-scar and dental history;
how he sheds, in short, all that could not
be anyone’s but his, the ancient encryption
of his fingerprint, the mole on the ball of his foot.
It is a terrible thing to witness the speed with which
he and twenty other inmates are drawn up,
stumbling backwards, into one another; how they grow
eerily identical webbed feet, webbed fingers,
webbed ears, and melt their bone-marrow down
to the kind of red glue that welds them together
at the pelvis, the abdomen and the chest
as if, well, some slow-moving animal penned
by a single rope, tugging at each wrist; some rhythm
of oars rowed, without a drum; some engine
which drives a sort of spirit replica straight through
the savage razors of the wire without a scratch.
In no sense is this an attempt to evoke the painting, but is rather haunted by the rhythmic ghost of Goya, by the darkness of his vision and the manner in which human flesh seems to flare out of that darkness, Rembrandt-like; the way each of his protagonists is part hero, part ballbearing of history. The poem is first and foremost a kind of homage to the young men sucked up into one another almost against their own will. It’s also an attempt to represent visually the fearful potential of an estranged and resentful sector of young men subjected to medieval punishment. This is the moment when ekphrasis attempts to overcome the fact of otherness: when the text encounters its semiotic ‘others’. The webbed fingers, the melting down of bone-marrow, the rhythm of oars, the spirit replica, the terrible binding agent of ‘red glue’, all owe something important to the triumph of cinematic physicality, while building that otherness; the dream-like likenesses which are a shortcut to meanings they never quite disclose but nonetheless live out to the full. They draw hugely upon the cinema’s long history of ‘shown’ metamorphosis. But they also debunk the cult of the body thrown at us incessantly by the media, one minute invoking its needs, the next, offering itself as exemplar. The poem explores the manner in which the cult of the body is subverted by the darker forces of the collective unconscious. There is a kind of ‘madness’ running through it, as there is through many of Goya’s paintings. This is little more than the author’s projected fear, made visual, stared onto the air, as if the protagonists are part his own emotion, part independent existence. The moral questions concerning imprisonment, the question of the effectiveness of long-term sentencing, are not touched upon overtly in this poem but hover, I hope, around the visual representation, anchored precariously by ekphrasis.
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