July 2, 2003

Conventions of Ekphrasis

There are conventions with ekphrasis, as with other poetic modes. Over the past two years or so, I’ve put together a list of conventions that usually appear in an ekphrastic work. Not all of them are present at once. In fact, quite frequently only one or two are present at any given time; historically, however, these are the appeals, patterns, and/or traditions that an ekphrastic work usually adopts. Predominantly, these conventions come from either my or someone else’s research on male ekphrasis. Many of these would also be found in a woman’s ekphrastic work. Still, I believe that there are particular anxieties, considerations… even sympathies that underlie ekphrastic poems by women that further enrich this list of conventions. I’ll probably make a stab at what I think some of those things are early on, but I hope over the course of the next month or so that the poems that I’ll be introducing here will prove these female conventions to exist in more than just my head.

Speaking out
Frequently the poet will use the poem as a means of creating a voice for it, quite literally giving a voice to the mute art object. The artwork (usually painting or sculpture) speaks to the artist or the poem will speak to the mute visual artifact. The poet may implore the painting/sculpture to speak or to justify the artist or poet’s work. Usually this voice becomes deeply entwined with two other conventions by either praising the artist for (frequently his) mastery over nature or ability to manipulate his medium. The technical term for giving a voice to the mute art object (or mute object at all) is prosopopeia. According to Jean Hagstrum, the iconic (the word he uses to describe what we are calling ekphrastic) poem asks that art become the mediating force between the real and the divine.

Closely linked to the previous convention, an ekphrastic poet/persona frequently praises the mastery of the visual artist and his work. It celebrates the artist’s mimetic powers, while frequently, simultaneously critiquing it for its lack of mutability.

Paragone Competition
A term initially introduced by Leonardo da Vinci as a way of describing the complex and competitive relationship between words and images, the paragone battle feeds off of the previously mentioned convention. While on one hand the poet/persona may be flattering the artist and his/her work, there is also an implicit critique of the material, its stasis, and its immutability. By alerting the reader to these inherent flaws, the poet may seek to establish superiority of words over the painter/sculptor and his material limitations. The poet may suggest that he has:
1. more immediate access to the real
2. more immediate access to the divine
3. that one art has a more direct relationship with Truth
4. that one exists in either time or space and therefore is more accurately representative through the accuracy of its resemblance
5. that one art requires more education, learning and talent or that it is less crude and more chaste.
W. J. T. Mitchell focuses a great deal of attention on this paragone struggle, attempting to map its relations between speaker-poet-reader and creating “stages” to describe the kind of relationship that exists between the two arts ranging from indifference to hope to fear.

Emotional response
The poet is usually drawn to the artwork through a deeply moving visual experience that triggers a latent or unresolved emotional vulnerability. The artwork is described as “transfixing” the poet. As a result, the poet suffers from speechlessness (exactly the kind of threat that begins the paragone contest, or the ekphrastic fear as Mitchell describes it) because of the extreme beauty of the work of art. Sometimes that “beauty” is defined by the artwork’s ability to “trick” the poet into believing that the work is “real.” In other words, the painting/sculpture is so precise that it is difficult to discern the real from its representation. The ultimate compliment that the poet can pay to the painting is that it “breathes” life while the poet remains “breathless” before it. But breathlessness is never beneficial for a poet. To steal the poet’s voice is to steal his purpose, and so a flaw is frequently discovered shortly afterwards thereby releasing the poet from this “transfixing” gaze.

Stasis of the art object
Again, this frequently appears hand-in-hand with praise, but occasionally it does not. The poet will point out the stasis of the art object (eg. Thou still unravished bride of quietness…). The poet will deliberately point to the inherent shortcomings of the medium to produce an effect over time (much akin to a kind of Lessing / Simonides critique… that painting is mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture). Later examples of ekphrasis, however, will also use this opportunity to point out the inherent limits of language as well, the difficulty of representation in linguistic form.

Sometimes used interchangeably, ekphrasis usually includes, but is not limited to, the use of enargia. The term comes from classical rhetoric. It means to make the object lively appear before the reader’s eye. This usually happens through careful recreation of the visual artifact through verbal means, such as detailed description, use of sensory information, imagery, etc… In other words, so ekphrasis will also attempt to visually reproduce the art object for the reader so that the reader can experience the same arresting effect as the poet. This, of course, works to varying degrees of success. Some refer to this as “painterly” poetry, and this is precisely the kind of work that lies at the heart of Lessing’s treatise. Lessing saw it as poetry’s attempt to mimic the visual arts.

Halting narrative progress
Some critics (yep… I can’t remember who… I know they’re out there… so time to go hunting for names again) argue that ekphrasis serves the purpose of confounding narrative progression in a longer (typically epic) work.

Actions of the painter
Sometimes the ekphrastic poem will linger on the actions of the visual artist concentrating on the act of creation and often paralleling the act of artistic creation with divine creation.

Artist’s studio
Frequently, an ekphrastic poem will make reference or be wholly concentrated upon the artist’s studio. This, as I’ve been compiling ekphrastic poems by women, is also a popular convention for them.

Museum ekphrasis
There is also the ekphrastic poem in which the poet is wandering through the museum looking at various pieces and each begins to bleed into the poet’s poem/thoughts.

Notional ekphrasis
Again, this convention is one that usually includes many of the other conventions that I’ve already suggested and probably doesn’t even belong here, but I’ll put it here for now. Poets will also create an imagined visual artifact and write a poem on that. Such is the case with Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The unique possibility that this allows the poet is complete and utter control over the painting or sculpture. The art object relies completely on the poet’s imagination for its existence.

This last one, again, I’m uncertain as to whether or not it belongs in this category, but I’ll put it here for now. The usefulness of ekphrasis is that it can also assure the permanence of a physical, visual artifact through language. For example, though the artwork may be lost, damaged, or destroyed, the poem somehow allows for the permanency of that art object. It is as if to say that even if the art object is destroyed, it’s memory exists in language that can be transmitted over time and through which the object is preserved.

Conventions that I’ve already begun to recognize within the ekphrastic poems by women that I’ve collected so far include:

Critique of Courtly Love
As I’m reading Rebeka Smick’s article entitled “Evoking Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta: Transformations in the Topos of Living Stone” in the collection of essays The Eye of the Poet the Renaissance ekphrastic form parallels the development of the courtly love poem (frequently the sonnet sequence). Interestingly enough, the courtly love sequence of a) unresponsiveness to the poet’s advances on the part of the lady (a part of the sequence frequently turned visual by painters and engravers); b) entranced by her loveliness, the smitten poet would then beg for his lady’s mercy while lingering at the edge of death (what I read to be the kind of “breathlessness” convention that I mention earlier) until c) the poet’s tormented spirit departs his broken body and he dies from the misery of unrequited love. It is only at the point of the poet’s death, however, that the lady pays any attention to the poet and her attention takes the form of pity (pieta). In any case, the use of the Pieta appears in several 20th century female poets’ work, including a poem by that title in Gluck’s collection Decending Figure. The critique, though, appears through either a critique of the desire itself or a critique through the feminized art object’s pity of the viewer. Other forms, I’m sure, exist… I just haven’t found them yet.

Punning off of terms such as “old master,” women play games with the concept of mastery of art and mastery of the female body as “model” for (most) painting, sculpture, etc.

Frequently the female poet will attempt to demonstrate a kind of sympathy for the position of the object.

The mute, perfect, still figure that is the painting or statue also causes the living, breathing female poet distress because of her inability to compete (and I would guess, though this is unsubstantiated, her resentment of the need to compete). There is a competition for the artist’s desire that occurs between the artwork (a creation of the poet’s and therefore a kind of self-love) and the model (who actually lives, breathes, and one presumes, speaks).

I’ve run across a number of response poems as well. In other words, there are responses to popular ekphrastic works such as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” So far, I feel that most of these poems treat the poet as though engaging in the courtly love ritual and responds on behalf of the artwork, but I really need to do more research in this area to say for sure.

Well, this is a longer post than I’d anticipated. If you’ve made it through all of this… jolly good show! Hope you’re not falling asleep. Perhaps you have discovered another convention or can think of a poem that I should add to my list after having read through the conventions of the form.

Posted by c_jane at July 2, 2003 11:13 AM | TrackBack

Don't quite know how this one would fit into your typology.... the narrator contemplating a possible painting-to-be as a type of "projective ekphrasis" There is an example in Joyce Cary's _The Horse's Mouth_.

I wonder if one might capture the deontological aspects of your typology but considering a "table of attitudes" (degree of control over, fascination with, etc) in a table where the attitudes would be correlated to the status of the object of ekphrasis (exists, doesn't exist, might exist).

It seems your project might be facilitated by a consideration of Lubomir Dolezel's possible worlds narratology. It seems that ekphrasis calls out for a treatment in terms of the intersection of Dolezel's four modal systems:

alethic (possible, impossible, necessary)
deontic (permitted, prohibited, obligatory)
axiolgoical (good, bad, indifferent)
epistemic (known, unknown, believed)

I like to recast the epistemic in terms of "known, knowable, unknowable". It seems to bridge considerations of ekphrasis with questions of iconoclasism. Which leads me to ask if the proposed listing of ekphrasitic conventions is also an entry point into cultural values pertaining to visual-verbal translations....

Posted by: Francois Lachance at July 9, 2003 12:12 PM |

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Studying ekphrasis, I believe, is significant because it provides us with a direct and historically rooted discussion of visual/verbal relations. It moves often abstract and metaphorical conversations of visual/verbal relations toward a more concrete, tangible interrelationship. My real interest, however, lies in uncovering our gendered assumptions about visual/verbal relastions and uses ekphrasis with its long tradition of use, criticism, and participation in the ut pictora poesis dialectic as a starting place. My work questions the assumptions we make using current theories of ekphrasis about how gender operates. My goal is to open up this area of inquiry such that ekphrasis by women--to this point grossly neglected--is no longer read as the voice of a female impersonating a male- dominant voice. Instead, women have looked, desired, and written about it for quite some time. It's time that our theories of ekphrasis (and by extension visual/verbal relations) reflect this. I will be posting more about this in coming days, though, so I won't bore you with it here.

In any case, I appreciate your post. I'll take what you say about Dolezel's work under advisement.

Posted by: CJ at July 9, 2003 1:11 PM |

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My apologies. I did not intend to appear to downplay gender. The analysis of ekphrasis provides scholars and researchers with opportunities to re-examine looking at the sexual politics of the gaze through verbal acts tracing their implied readers. The poetry of Marianne Moore poses some interesting cases. The opening of "The Jerboa" describes a sculpture in situ and one wonders if its satiric bite is affected by the constructed-imagined gender of the implied reader. There is the elegant metaphorics of "An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish" which reflect a very different dimension of human possibility if the lines are read as issuing from a female voice addressed to an implied that is a woman-peer. A very interesting relay is set up between voice, mimicry and implied reader in "Four Quartz Crystal Clocks" and its notes that acknowledge some of the borrowing that enters into Moore's self-described "hybrid method of composition".

I don't know if mimicry as theorized by Irigaray would help account for the "doubleness" and even multiplicity that one can experience in re-reading an ekphrastic text and consciously questioning the inclusiveness of direct address triggered by dietics such as "you" and "us".

Reading Moore through the concerns of ekphrasis leads me to pull a few lines to express an appreciation for the dynamic holding pattern that description animates:

"And art, as in a wave held up for us to see"

"you realize that 'when you
hear the signal', you'll be"

"[...] as in a wave held up for [...]"

Posted by: Francois Lachance at July 10, 2003 9:45 AM |

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Thank you very much for this! Very interesting and just what I needed!


Alvhild Dvergsdal (Un. of Bergen, Norway)

Posted by: Alvhild Dvergsdal at September 19, 2003 12:06 PM |

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Dear CJ,

One of my summer projects was to read all three volumes of Gilbert & Gubar's _The War of the Words_. When I came across this passage devoted to a discussion of May Sarton on Virgina Woolf and was reminded of your explorations of a gendered ekphrasis:
For indeed it was Woolf herself who mourned what she claimed were the distortions, deflections, and deceptions of the female literary tradition at the same time that she signaled a way for women to perceive time as flowing rather than static, purposefully historical rather than monstrously random.

I'm not quite sure how the flow/static pairing actually maps onto purpose/random. However, I think there is something about the question of temporality and the tempo of movement that connects with the concerns of ekpraksis: stopping to linger to move on.

Ekpraksis as a repose, a gathering of stength to re-pose the consciousness-raising questions. ???

Posted by: Francois Lachance at September 22, 2003 11:38 AM |

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I am a student at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK. I am preparing a dissertation on ekphrasis in Fiona Banner's work. She is a signigicant UK and international artist who writes out her accounts of films. The work I am interested in is called Arsewoman in Wonderland (UK) and is her account, printed in bright pink, of a soft porn film Asswoman in Wonderland (US). Amongst the many layers of fascination here is the fact that not only is the artist a woman but the porn film was directed by the porn actress Tiffany Mynx. Banner's work is fiendishly clver. She has made it so that to see the whole work, 2-D, pasted on to gallery walls, you have to stand back and can't read the words. If you get close enough to read the words you only get a comparatively few at a time. The words are totally explicit, as one says about these things. So Banner has made a visual work of art through using words to describe (part of) another visual work which happens to be a porn film. So is her work actually ekphrastic? How much of a literary piece does a verbal ekphrastic production have to be? And the gender issues are fascinating. Because to top the whole thing we have the fact that the film refers to Alice in Wonderland (literary work) and there's a young woman watching and then participating in the action, directed by a woman and then Banner produces her piece.

Posted by: Devra at September 26, 2003 4:42 PM |

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I am an Indian graduate student finishing a dissertation on the aesthetic problems in early literary ekphrasis. I'm looking for a Renaissance version of the Shield of Achilles. If someone has a quick lead to give me, I shall be very grateful. I will also be happy to share my work if you are interested. My address: Pragyan Rath, Ladies' Hostel, Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad 500007, AP, India. Please write to me at my rediffmail address.

Posted by: Pragyan at April 10, 2004 9:58 AM |

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My e-mail id: pragyanhappy@rediffmail.com

Posted by: Pragyan at April 10, 2004 10:01 AM |

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send me the picture of statue

Posted by: prahsant at July 17, 2004 12:43 AM |

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I managed to forget an important convention that I should have picked up on a long time ago. Often times the poet will narrate the static image. This is the case in, for example, in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" when Keats's speaker creates a narrative of desire between the figures on the urn.

Posted by: CJ at September 18, 2004 9:42 AM |

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As a writer for many decades, it is exceedingly annoying to read "literary" "theory" which is nothing more substantive than accidental, unintended imaginary fiction which aggrandizes its authors while pretending to be other than out-and-out solipsistic "mental masturbation" -- speculations which cannot be factually shown to have any relevance to the "text" about which the out-of-control hot air-blowing purports to be.

That is why it is by-and-large both unreadable and irrelevant to the "text" allegedly explicated. There was a time when a university education meant something more than aggressive advancing of one's "gender" divisiveness, and the dead-end refusal to communicate by instead fulminating verbose windbaggery which obscures everything but the "author's" obsession with her-his self to the exclusion of everything else.

Posted by: Joseph Nagarya at March 7, 2005 7:33 PM |

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