Update (June 2019): I have written more on ekphrastic choices in a recent review published in Agenda Poetry.
Ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) are on my mind a great deal as I have been planning the all-day workshop I have been asked to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath on the 25th February, 2017. This particular exhibition, ‘Breughel: Defining a Dynasty’, opens on the 11th February and was in the news recently as it will include, among many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. I’ve been reading a variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I wondered if there was a way of categorising the various approaches. There are probably many – but these 14 ways (in 5 subgroups) are what I have come up with and they might usefully serve as a way to kick-start ekphrastic poems of your own. Try one a day for the next fortnight!
- Describe – and do no more. This is always the poet’s initial desire, to put into words what has caught our attention visually (and because attention has been visually caught there is something about this image or object that chimes with the writer’s subconscious). In terms of the poet’s intention, the wish to describe may be sufficient (the subconscious may do the rest). Examples might be Michael Longley’s ‘Man Lying on a Wall’ (from Lowry’s paiting of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).
- Describe but imagine beyond the frame – Derek Mahon’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ (after Munch’s painting of the same name) does this, beginning with description of the scene but then wonders where the road leads away to in space, asks what the next day will bring (in time) and concludes with allusions to Munch’s more famous image ‘The Scream’: “bad dreams / You hardly know will scatter / The punctual increment of your lives”.
- Describe but incorporate researched materials – an easy option in the world of Google where the artist’s life or love life, the political context etc are easily accessed. Edward Lucie-Smith does this in ‘On Looking at Stubbs’ ‘Anatomy of the Horse’’, working with the gossip of local people in the Lincolnshire village where Stubbs worked at preparing the horse’s carcass: ‘His calm knife peeling putrid flesh from bone”.
- Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach as famously done in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’ (from Georges Braque’s ‘Bather’). Thomas Hardy makes the Elgin Marbles speak in ‘Christmas in the Elgin Room’.
- Make Minor Figure/s Speak – UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side (Uccello’s ‘St George and the Dragon’) might be considered a hat-trick of the category above but her decision to make all 3 characters in the painting speak, casting side-lights to and fro, means I put it here. Delmore Schwartz’s ‘Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine’ – while more free indirect speech than ventriloquism – has a similar effect, visiting each of the characters in Seurat’s picture and allowing their perspective to be aired.
- Make Objects Speak – this is an obvious category though I’m a bit short on illustrations of it. BC Leale’s ‘Sketch by Constable’ almost does it by concentrating attention on a tiny dog sketched in the corner of an image of Flatford Mill. Ann Ridler also comes close by largely ignoring the foreground figures and focusing on the landscape only in ‘Backgrounds to Italian Paintings’.
- Make the Artist Speak – writing about Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, Robert Fagles makes the artist speak, denouncing photography and preferring the expressive qualities of paint: “Of the life hereafter I know nothing, mother, / but when I paint you what I feel is yellow, / lemon yellow, the halo of rose”.
- Of the Artist – Vicki Feaver’s ‘Oi yoi yoi’ (on Roger Hilton’s image of the same name) starts with description but quickly begins talking directly to Hilton (“You were more interested / in her swinging baroque tits”). Interestingly, ekphrastic poems need not always stand in awe of the work; looking at Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed’, Thomas Blackburn has a long one-sided conversation with the artist, charting a growing disenchantment with Bacon’s work, accusing him of “uttering, with superb, pretentious / Platitudes of rut, that you have said and said”.
- Of the Figure/s – I have always admired Gerda Mayer’s poem, ‘Sir Brooke Boothby’ (after Joseph Wright’s image), in which she addresses with Sir Brooke about his languid pose, his copy of Rousseau, his intense scrutiny of the observer. Peter Porter’s many poems about art objects are hard to categorise but ‘Looking at a Melozzo da Forli’ (an image of the Annunciation) interrogates both image and the figure of Mary herself.
- Of Yourself – probably all ekphrasis is a sort of self-interrogation but some poems make this more clear. The address often takes the form of admissions of ignorance or obtuseness in the face of the image or the asking of rhetorical questions. Robert Wallace on ‘Giacometti’s Dog’ once again begins in description but asks questions about the fascination of the image, eventually concluding “We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough”.
Through Giving an Account
- Of Your Encounter – Wallace’s poem spills across these artificial categories and might be placed here, among poems where the poet explicitly records details of his/her encounter with the work of art. Yeats famously does this in ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, looking at images of Augusta Gregory and John Synge. David Wright (who lost his hearing at the age of seven) movingly describes his visit to Rome to see Maderno’s sculpture of St Cecilia (patron saint of music) in his poem ‘By the Effigy of St Cecilia’.
- Of Gallery Visitors – poets often comment on the behaviour or experiences (imagined) of gallery visitors (and even the gallery attendants!). Gillian Clarke does this in ‘The Rothko Room’: “In this, / the last room after hours in the gallery, / a mesh diffuses London’s light and sound. / The Indian keeper nods to sleep, marooned / in a trapezium of black on red”.
- Of Others – admittedly a catch-all category this one, but sometimes (especially when the works of art appear in churches) the poet can be interested in speculating about the responses of more ‘ordinary’ people. Thom Gunn does this toward the end of ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ where Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of St Paul’ is displayed. Having recorded his own response to the image he ends by staring at the old Roman women who come to kneel before it: “each head closeted // In tiny fists holds comfort as it can. / Their poor arms are too tired for more than this / – For the large gesture of solitary man, / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness”.
Come At a Tangent
- Finally, the ekphrastic moment can be presented as if an after-thought, or illustration of a poem already half composed. There are famous examples of this, especially Auden’s ‘ Musee des Beaux Arts’ which spends most of its length contemplating in very general terms the way old paintings present suffering. Only towards the end does Auden refer to Breughel’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ which he describes in some detail to suggest how “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. RS Thomas’ ‘Threshold’ does something similar, only concluding with allusions to Michaelangelo’s painting of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. And Seamus Heaney’s ‘Summer 1969’ records a visit to Madrid as the Troubles boiled in Northern Ireland, and only latterly does the poem focus on Goya’s ‘Panic’: “Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children, / Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips / Over the world.