July 1, 2003

Back in the saddle, again...

If we look back at classical Aristotelian rhetoric, all argumentation begins with an agreement in fact and definition. Unless your audience agrees on the most basic facts or on the definitions of the terms used, progress is unlikely in further argumentation and agreement on points such as causality, value, action, or jurisdiction. Aristotle called these the stases—locations where arguments are typically held. At the University of Maryland, we teach this to our students as they are learning to organize large bodies of information for themselves and as they begin to sort out the many voices present in a debate.

For my own work, this also seems to be a useful, although vexed, starting place. (We love that word, don’t we… vexed… makes us seem so able to either pat ourselves on the back for dealing with something complicated or excuses us for our own confusion on the subject.) Ekphrasis, the topic of my dissertation, has a multivalent past in terms of its definition. The word has been used to describe everything from vivid description of people, actions, places, seasons, and festivals (enargia) to the verbal representation of visual representation to the poetic representation of a painting. In any event, when you are dealing with the historical development of a term, it’s important to agree with someone in the debate in order to validate your own position. This, however, is where I begin to run into trouble.

The most commonly accepted and contemporary understanding of the term ekphrasis is the verbal representation of visual representation. This is a definition coined by James A. W. Heffernan in Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Heffernan’s purpose in creating such a definition was to allow the term enough flexibility to trace one poetic mode from one of the earliest Western poets on record to the present. It’s an effective strategy and works well for Heffernan’s project. Heffernan creates a genealogy of ekphrastic work beginning with Homer, Virgil, and Dante (ekphrasis here is part of a larger epic work. Eg. Achilles’ shield) through Chaucer, Marlowe, Spencer, Shakespeare, skipping most of the 18th century to arrive at Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Byron, and finally concluding with W. H. Auden, W. D. Snodgrass and John Ashbury. Class, does anyone find anything missing? Perhaps, a single female poet? While this presently seminal text on the topic of ekphrasis presents a gendered dichotomy between the poet/word/male viewerà painting/image/female viewed, it fails to even mention that women poets, too, had been writing ekphrasis for a very long time.

The problem that Heffernan runs into, in my humble opinion, is that his definition pushes the female verse to the margins, even if unintentionally. For instance, whereas men were more likely to have a rigorous education in “the old Masters.” Women were more commonly familiar with the domestic arts: amateur painting, weaving, pottery, and the like. Most domestic art, however, serve functions and are not, by definition, representational art. This leaves the entire history of female discourse on the topic of poetic ekphrasis out of Heffernan’s definition and gives the illusion that there is no history there.

As I’ve discovered, uncovering that history is tricky business. I would be at a total loss without the hard-fought efforts of so many scholars who have worked tirelessly to put together anthologies of work by women from the early modern period on. I’m still searching to find scraps of work that I know are there. I’ve already found 10 or so poems on topics such as tapestry, painting, teapots, etc. , but the work is slow and very limited in its rewards.

In any case, as must happen at the beginning of any debate, I’m working to clarify my definition. For the time being, I’ve settled on the following. It’s a working definition, but I hope that it is flexible enough to include a history of women’s ekphrasis, without rendering the term useless from over-elasticity (as Heffernan accuses Murray Kreiger). Ekphrasis is the verbal representation of visual display.

Oops... gotta run errands... more later.

Posted by c_jane at July 1, 2003 8:06 AM

I like "visual display", but it still feels too steeped in "representation" and not enough in "functional", which is an aspect I think your research has really enlivened. I wonder about "verbal representation of visual production" as a possibility?

I think of this because of our many conversations where you have argued for a more active valuation of “that which is being looked at” – something that is not just a display piece, but rather has something empowering in its very existence. Not a product, but a production.

Posted by: Jason at July 1, 2003 9:51 AM |

Permalink to Comment

So does ekphrasis refer to a representation in one form (linguistic/verbal) of a representation in another (visual)? So a poem about a painting of a palace would be ekphrasis but a poem that provides a vivid description of that palace would not. Right? I know, I know, I could pick up one of several dictionaries of literary terms, but they're all at the office right now.

Other visually-oriented domestic arts include quilting and needlework. Perhaps Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" would join your list: http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/674.html

Then again, perhaps it's already there.

Posted by: George at July 1, 2003 11:59 AM |

Permalink to Comment

Yes, you have the gist of it. And the Rich poem you mention rides the fine line between Heffernan's definition and mine. The, I believe it's either a blanket or a pillow embroidered with tigers in Rich's poem serves both a function and as a representation of tigers. Still, there are other domestic pieces of artwork that are nonrepresentational, but could still be considered "art." For example, a handcrafted teapot or a quilt with patterns, but not an obvious act of representation.

Still, George, if you know of poems by women on either representational (or nonrepresentational) art in the 18th century (or if you just run across one randomly) I'd be deeply indebted if you'd pass it along. There are literally thousands of examples from the 20th century. In fact, I've found even a fair number in the Romantic and Victorian periods; however, any earlier, and it starts getting pretty sketchy.

Thanks for the post... as to Jason's... I'm worried about the word production because of it's Marxist undertones... not that I don't think it's useful... but delving into one more theoretical realm just seems like more than I can handle right now. Though the idea makes sense.

Posted by: jane at July 1, 2003 12:22 PM |

Permalink to Comment

What about this: ekphrasis is the verbal representation of a visual artifact, with "artifact" defined as an "object produced or shaped by human craft" (which is an approximate quotation of my American Heritage Dictionary definition)? The stress is on the deliberate human manipulation of materials. The term is inclusive enough to admit of paintings, tapestries, pottery, etc., and provides that "functional" emphasis that Jason invokes (the stock dictionary example of "artifact" is usually "tool"). But it is also exclusive enough to block descriptions of naturally occuring phenomena (a mountain range or piece of driftwood).

It wouldn't, however, address George's question about the distinction between the castle and the representation of the castle, since both fall within the category of artifact. But then maybe it's okay to collapse the two for your purposes?

Very interesting work, CJ!

Posted by: kari at July 1, 2003 12:22 PM |

Permalink to Comment

Oops... I forgot one thing... ekphrasis and architecture is a whole other can of worms. I suppose that Heffernan is trying to rule out poems on building for simplicity sake, and I definitely see the usefulness of doing so. If you don't limit the definition at all, the term becomes worthless. Still, I wonder if ekphrasis isn't still a good term for that. That's one of those parts of the "definition" I'm not totally resolved by. There should be a line drawn somewhere... because there is a difference between ekphrasis and enargia; however, the ways that distinction has been drawn in the past has effectively cut out an entire history of women's writing.

Sorry for the extra long comment post here...

Posted by: jane at July 1, 2003 12:26 PM |

Permalink to Comment

Kari... you rock my world. That's a fabulous suggestion. If I wasn't late for lunch, I'd comment more... but thank you sooo much to all three of you for posting!

Posted by: jane at July 1, 2003 12:27 PM |

Permalink to Comment

if "artifact" doesn't wholly resolve your anxiety about this first stasis issue (and it seems likely that it will), would it be productive to drop the "ion" from the end of "production"?

i can imagine your reservations about working under the theoretical weight of marxism and its many offspring, and i don't imagine that dropping the part-of-speech-changing suffix would get you out of the woods, but at the very least, emphasis would remain on the fact that some sort of human agency ushered in the artifact's existence. if your attention is turned toward the fact that works of "art," whether oil on canvas or material folklore like appalachian spinning-toys, play a role that reflects or suggests a gender politics, then i wonder how a tree, a mountain, or a body of water fits...

yeah, then again, maybe "visual product" sounds no better than "visual production."

Posted by: dave at July 1, 2003 3:24 PM |

Permalink to Comment

In fact, I used production because it sounded less Marxist ( - as if! - ) to me than product. Production was at least an action - product was back to just plain use value. Production also evoked for me a sense of performance (e.g., a "stage production"), which might've helped skipped that Marxist stone.

Alas, I fear the weight of Marxist theory might be too heavy for either term.

Posted by: Jason at July 1, 2003 4:20 PM |

Permalink to Comment

The article and the comments made interesting reading. I am working on ekphrstic poems and reader response theory, but now, i feel that my work does not contribute to the enormous conversation going on on the subject. yet, the subject continues to fascinate me. can you help me get focused on my topic. hope you will reply.

Posted by: Jo at May 11, 2005 5:15 AM |

Permalink to Comment

Post a comment

Remember personal info?