July 18, 2003

Dealing with Medusa

A quick post before I run off to try to clear up my issues with the library. Next to campus parking, I cite the library as one of the biggest extortionists on campus. Anyway, on to the post....

I just finished an article this morning by Jane Headley titled, “Sylvia Plath’s Ekphrastic Poetry” from the Raritan: A Quarterly Review (v.20 n.4). Three things strike me about this article right away. First, Hedley makes the claim that through the process of writing ekphrastic poetry, Plath is able to open up to herself more personal and emotive landscapes because she could use a figure within the painting (a “beautiful disassociated object” (quoted by Hedley from Nancy Vickers) to deflect the gaze from herself onto the painting. Second, Hedley’s argument hinges on her believe (a highly convincing one) that Plath “harbored within herself both the chaste maiden and the strumpet is a theme of Plath’s journals…” (41). Of the journal entries, Hedley describes them as “an explosive mixture of contradictory longings…brought into focus by a self-awareness that is intense, grandiose, and strongly theatrical. If this intellectually and sexually ambitious young woman is prone to making a spectacle of herself for others, she is one to herself as well” (41). Ekphrasis, then, provided Plath with a way of moving herself out of the focus of the gaze and of depersonalizing the speaker of the poem as a figure within the painting itself. Through ekphrasis, Hedley postulates that Plath drew confessionalism and New Critical poetics together within her own unique aesthetic.

The third thing that interests me about the article, however, is the brief interlude that the article takes in order to deal with criticism in late 20th century studies of ekphrasis and how gender has been treated. As far as I can tell, Hedley, other than Beth Loizeaux, is the only other person to have said something like this. Hedley begins by pointing out previous studies by Mitchell, Heffernan, Paul Fry, and Jean Hagstrum. She points out that critics point to the practical, material difference between text and image which by extension present a metaphysical dilemma… one which dominates human communicative behavior by loading text and image with ideological assumptions about the proper sphere for differing artistic media (male/active/voice, female/passive/object). She also points out that Mitchell and Heffernan both seem to point to a predestined gendering of ekphrasis. She quotes Mitchell’s statement from “Ekphrasis and the Other” stating “that female otherness is an overdetermined feature in a genre that tends to describe an object of visual pleasure and fascination from a masculine perspective.” This male perspective, as both Mitchell and Heffernan note, frequently takes the shape of the male voice (as Beth likes to say) “having his verbal way” with the feminized art object. The most typical example of this comes by way of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in which the male speaker addresses the urn as an “unravished bride of quietness.” That bride, however, is a threatening and frightening object because its stillness (and one might assume quietness) poses the threat of castration to the “bold Lover” who chases the bride as well as the poet through her motionlessness and refusal to consummate their male desire. The speaker, however, is able to force the bride out of her quietness by giving her voice, essentially forcing her to speak.

As Hedley rightly points out, though, there is a limitation to this castration-anxiety approach. Theory that begins with the presupposition of fear by the male speaker of castration by the passive, female object of the gaze depends on the presence of the male speaker. In other words, gender is determined before even the first utterance. Many scholars cite Laura Mulvey’s classic feminist essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she argues that women can choose either to participate in the objectification of the female body by the male lens (remember, this is film theory), or to deflect visual desire and satisfaction through anti-illusionist images that frustrate that gaze.

This particular approach seems effective to me in the realm of film studies, but less effective in the field of ekphrasis. Primarily, this is because women have been looking at and writing about art for many years. True, these poems have been neglected, lost, or even erased, but the point is that either they existed or still do exist. Furthermore, women have been enjoying what they’ve looked at, and not, I would assume, from a transgender position as man, but from their own individual position as woman. For example, Renaissance playwright Elizabeth Cary makes reference in her play The Tragedy of Marian to a portrait, which Marian’s mother describes as “competition” for the daughter. In her poem “The Greek Slave,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning makes rather direct commentary on the odd condition of a white male artists’ creation of a white nude form shackled to a wooden stump and partially covered by an elaborate tapestry. The poem scoffs at the position of the American artist whose work chastises the enslavement of the Greeks, while the piece was cast in a country where economic development depended on the slavery.

The point is that Mulvey offers us one, helpful and insightful way in which to approach ekphrasis, but that it is too limiting as the only approach. Even W. J. T. Mitchell points out that “all this would look quite different if my emphasis had been on ekphrastic poetry by women.” And, as Hedley points out, it would be, because Mitchell’s theory depends on male fear of female otherness and castration. My point is that women poets do not adopt a kind of male-prosthetic voice whose motivation comes from the fear of possible castration.

Hedley also addresses Heffernan’s attempt to account for some ekphrastic poems by recounting the tale of Philomela. Through weaving tapestry, Philomela is able to communicate through visual medium, identify her rapist, and reclaim some ability to speak. As Hedley points out, though, Heffernan’s examples include only one poem by a woman—Adrienne Rich’s “Mourning Picture.” Much to Hedley’s credit, she also points out that this does not spur Heffernan on to discus women’s ekphrastic writing, but merely furthers the paragonal struggle between visual and verbal fields.
Hedley’s point isn’t to discuss women’s ekphrastic writing, either. Her explicit point is to explain that Plath “was drawn to ekphrastic writing because she was a spectacle to herself, a woman who played to the gaze self-consciously and with considerable ambivalence” (47). She does attempt to disrupt the “Medusa” theory (fear of castration) of ekphrastic gender relations by arguing “Medusa was her ally and her adversary, inextricably both.” However, Hedley invites us to take a closer look at the “overdetermined” gendered nature of ekphrasis and to explore alternatives to existing theories that accommodate a long tradition of poetry by women that take visual art as their subject. This, in effect, is what my dissertation will attempt to do.

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July 17, 2003


Because the introduction of my dissertation looks like it just isn't going to come together until the end of the project, I'm starting with an entirely different chapter just to get myself going. The chapter is on portraiture, self-portraiture, and women's ekphrastic poetry in the 20th century. I have about 22 poems that I'm looking at right now. Not all of them are going to be in the chapter, of course, but I feel like this just isn't a comprehensive enough view of women's poems on portraiture and self-portrait.

You're probably wondering what qualifies as self-portraiture or portrait ekphrasis. Well, I'm not completely resolved on that myself. What I do know is that self-portraiture can be actual or notional. In other words, there can actually be a self-portrait or the self-portrait can be imagined (in other words, simply titling a poem "self-portrait" would put a poem in this category, because according to my argument, it automatically invokes a tradition in painting in which self-advertisement and self-identity are visually explicit and where the specific intention is to "record" both the physical and emotive character of the subject, where the emotional character is defined by physical means).

There are other instances where the self-portrait is "adopted." In other words, the poet takes on the physical presence of the portrait in order to explicitly "record" the poet's own physical or emotional character. These are also poems that I'd consider for this chapter. The distinction between this classification (again, more classifications with unstable boundaries..) and the use of portraiture is that in portraiture the speaker takes as its subject the physical presence of a visual representation of another person (typically female).

For the purposes of limiting this chapter, I'm not including nudist portraiture in this chapter. Possibly, I'll include the figure of the nude in another chapter, but the issues there seem so much more complicated. This presents a couple of problems. For example, what does one do with a painting of Venus? The portrait is an imagined work of portraiture of a mythological figure. Typically, it is also depicted as a nude. Well, I haven't made any decisions about that one either.

However, if you have a poem that is titled "Self-Portrait" by a female poet (20th century) or a similar poem that meditates on a portrait, please share. I've been gathering work by Sandra McPherson, Nina Bogin, C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, Jane Cooper, Linda Pastan, Margaret Atwood, Louise Gluck, Michael Field, Constance Naden, Adrienne Rich, Kelley Cherry, Ellen Glasgow, Liesel Mueller, Joy Katz, Susan Wood, and Sandra Gilbert. If you have others to suggest, please let me know.

Posted by c_jane at 12:38 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 16, 2003

What the poop?

Well, it's been a long time since I've actually posted anything. I've been working on this monster post for the past week and a half or so, but it's still not ready to go. (Well, not this post, exactly... another post, but you know what I mean...) In fact, I wrote another post this morning about why it was taking me so long. But then I got "blogaphobia."

Perhaps your not familiar with the term "blogaphobia"... it's that feeling when you haven't posted for a while, so there's all this stress built up around whatever it is that you post next... so you continue not to post because you want "just" the right post... and then it's weeks later and you realize that you just have to post something lame and suck it up.

So, here's my lame post, so that I might get over my blogaphobia and begin posting smaller pieces instead of the monster 10 pager that I had started. I keep saying that I'm going to try to keep my blog phobia-free. But, that just seems to be impossible. Blogs, in so many ways, become the self-actualization of phobia.

Anyway, if you're still hanging in there reading (and I wouldn't blame those who weren't), you may be wondering... "What's with the title, CJ?" Well, here's the deal. On the average morning, I get up, make breakfast, pull on some "work-out" clothes, drive my husband to the Metro, and go to a local park for an early hour-long walk. This morning was an average morning. I did all of these things; however, as I was walking, I felt something drop onto my shoulder. Now, the lake where I walk is a heavily wooded area filled with all kinds of creatures, including lots of hanging worms and caterpillars, so I figured... I've probably got a caterpillar of some sort on my shoulder. I look down, and start to make a motion to brush it off... and there is a giant bird poop on my shoulder. Utterly disgusted (and yes, I shrieked. I shrieked loudly…) I was torn... I didn't want to have bird poo on my shoulder for the next two laps around the lake, but I didn't want to stop, either. So I stopped by a water fountain and tried to wipe it off.

Just in case something like this has *not* happened to you... Bird poop doesn't wash off easily--especially when you are attempting to wash it off your shoulder with your shirt still on from a tiny little child water fountain in the middle of a running path. In fact, it spreads. Fortunately, I stopped it before it crawled any higher on my shoulder... and I turned my sleeve over enough that it wasn't touching me... and, yes, I continued to walk.

At that point, though, self-consciousness kicks into high gear. As I was walking, I kept imagining what everyone was thinking as I walked by. I passed a pair of Korean grandparents with their children in strollers, and all I could imagine was that they were talking about the giant green spot on my shoulder. I passed a rather short, blonde, preppy lady, and I swear that I heard her sniff as I passed by. By the end of the second lap, the self-consciousness got the best of me, and I trekked my way back up to the car and drove home.

Now, at home, I ran into the house, stripped off the shirt and took a shower. But I had to share this with someone obliged to be sympathetic... so I instant messaged my husband, hoping for just a scrap of sympathy. You know… nothing elaborate... just that "That's-really-lousy,-honey. I-can't-believe-that-happened-to-you." kind of sympathy. You know what he told me instead? He explained to me that having a bird poop on you is good luck.

Here's my question of the day then. In what culture is having an airborne animal defecating on your shoulder good luck? Do we say, "Hey, that's good luck!" to a person who's newly washed car is christened with bird droppings? Has anyone seen someone running around a park, neighborhood, or mall celebrating "Look, I'm a lucky guy! I've been pooped on!" lately? So, where did we get such a crazy kind of superstition? And quite frankly... does anyone believe it?

Yep. I warned you. I warned you early on that this was going to be a lame post... and so it is. I'm going to wash my shirt now, and I hope the rest your day is luckier than mine!

Posted by c_jane at 10:19 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

July 2, 2003

The Hours

I can't believe that I waited this long, but I finally saw The Hours last night. We rented the DVD a while ago, but finally had a chance to sit down and watch it. I have to admit that I was smitten with the exquisite cinematography. I'm not a film expert by a long shot, but the camerawork to my mind was excellent. The cast performed with a kind of emotional depth and sophistication that you rarely see anymore. I was thrilled with visual parallels (there's probably a more accurate film way of saying that) drawing the three stories together as indistinguishable parts of the same narrative. As a fan of the novel Mrs. Dalloway I think that the script really did do justice to all the sophistication of Woolf's psychological insight in the work.

This, however, brings me to the one thing that really damaged the experience for me. As I'm want to do... I watched all the little "extra" featurettes that the DVD had on there. I was utterly and completely disappointed both in the scholars and the film editors who put together the featurette on Virginia Woolf. I am *not* a Virginia Woolf scholar, nor would I attempt to impersonate one. Still, the featurette on Virginia Woolf, her mind, and her work, to me, was insulting. It placed such heavy emphasis on her psychological struggles that I got the sense that the makers of the featurette hadn't even watched the movie! Did anyone else see this thing? I felt embarrassed for the scholars who were interviewed. Their only real commentary seemed to condemn Woolf to a life so overwhelmed with emotional and mental turmoil that the *few* works she was able to finish emerged from brief moments of clarity in the eye of a larger emotional maelstrom. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Posted by c_jane at 11:29 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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 11:13 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

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 8:06 AM | Comments (9)