14 Ways to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

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!

Through Description

  1. 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 poem of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).

imgres

  1. 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”.

imgres

  1. 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”.

imgres

Through Ventriloquism

  1. 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’.

 

  1. 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.

imgres

  1. 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’.

 

  1. 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”.

 

Through Interrogation

  1. 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”.

 imgres

  1. 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.

imgres

  1. 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

  1. 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’.

imgres

  1. 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”.

 

  1. 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”.

 imgres

Come At a Tangent

  1. 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.imgres

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1 – Ron Carey

This is the first in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press)
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

imgres

Thanks to Revival Press for providing a copy of Ron Carey’s book for review purposes.

On the cover of Distance a male figure has already travelled well down a track through flat, open countryside. He’s heading determinedly away from us, hands thrust in his coat pockets. I think this is Ron Carey and though the image pretty literally evokes one aspect of the book’s title, it contradicts the stated direction of the poems within which hope to “bring us a little closer”. An epigraph from Elizabeth Burns suggests a more philosophical “sense / of time and place dissolving” so that (in an image that would have pleased Antonio Machado) “we are all / drops of water in this enormous breaking wave”. Ron Carey’s first collection sticks more firmly to the former, more commonplace, more personal of these formulations but is at its most interesting when it ventures an almost magic realist evocation of the latter.

The dissolution of strict linear time provides occasions for many of the most appealing poems here. They are acts of recall of a twentieth century childhood in Ireland (in this Carey invites comparisons with Heaney and, before him, Kavanagh). The boy who is the focus of these recollections is both highly observant and very imaginative. His conviction that there is a leopard in the coal-shed as he is tucked up in bed is grounded in vivid details of it tiptoeing “through the tin-pot Dulux jungle, on / Quick, painted feet”. ‘Breakfast’ is also troubled by imaginary big cats (lions this time) who chase his father from the house, their “claws pinging the spokes of [his] bicycle”. The idea of a ‘water-table’, as discussed by Driller Flanagan and the boy’s father, unleashes images of a real “table of Marian blue; its top shimmering” but when the geological reference is clarified for him, the boy swears never to ask “questions that have / The possibility of such dull answers”. We see the birth of a certain type of poet here, though Carey’s long wait for a first book reassures us that such unbridled (if vivid) fantasy will not be the whole story. So watching Aunt Babbie wring the necks of chickens, while blithely questioning him about his day at school, gives rise to more troubling childhood experiences as the birds’ “squawking souls” pursue him home and (the writing of the poem confirms) continue to haunt him forever.

imgres

Everyday remembrance seldom loses sight of the gulf between then and now, but Carey’s poems occasionally record more profound moments of the collapse of the temporal. ‘Moving’ records the day a family move to a newly built housing estate. All their belongings piled in a horse-drawn cart (old world), as they approach the house the boy’s mother runs ahead with a “100-watt Solus” light bulb in her hand (new world). The electricity that runs metaphorically through the boy’s hands as he is given the horse’s reins and literally through the bulb filament so that the “black eyes of the front-room suddenly blazed” form an instantaneous circuit in which the whole family experiences renewal, the mother now “a young girl” calling from an open window ahead. It is the intensity of the emotions which supercharges such changes in perception. ‘Kilkee’ sees the six-year-old boy partaking of the grief of another Aunt’s broken heart, lying like lovers themselves on sand dunes: “He put his finger into the ring of the sun / And pulled it down the sky till it entered the water”. This drawing down of blinds is a fantasy of sorts but far more profoundly linked to the truth of the moment than the boy’s water-table imaginings. It’s in ‘Upstairs’ that Carey brings this technique to its apogee where the boy (now grown but of an uncertain age) agrees to wear his father’s old coat and lie beside his ageing mother. It’s her desire to re-live earlier days and intimacies that dominates, but the poem cleverly reveals the boy’s own uncertainty of identity: “We pretend to sleep, Danny and me”. He feels he can’t get up, though she’s now asleep, “Because she will not let go of his hand” (my italics).

1899C_British_Bicycle_man

The figure of the father is a powerful one and recurs throughout the book. We see him relishing “pig’s toes with a pint”; elsewhere he comes home from work: “Your cold, great hands shocking / Our new skins; your goat’s kiss rough as love”. Even more memorably, in ‘My Father Built England’, he works as an immigrant labourer, a “solid Paddy full of gristle”, learning how to harden his hands with urine, then with the onset of World War Two, returning to Ireland to work for Hogan and Son. He is one of many characters who populate this enjoyable book – Miss O’Mahoney, a pub quiz-master, an irregular Postman, several Aunts, Grandmother and Grandfather – most of them firmly enough grounded in close observation to avoid caricature. And it’s the quietness with which Carey achieves his aims which is notable. New technologies are alluded to in the context of the past. ‘Churchfields’ makes familiar use of a photographic image but in ‘Background’ an image of a Grandfather is set as background on a computer screen, allowing Carey to “click a short-cut icon on his broad shoulders” in another striking image of the collapse of time differences. Elsewhere, the sweep of a dry stone wall is compared to the curve of a “Large Particle Collider” (unlikely, but successful). And a visit to Patrick Kavanagh’s grave yields an encounter with his ghost, in fact on film, “rasping and jumping on a screen”.

Inisheer_Gardens_2002_dry-stone_walls

Unfortunately, there is a rather soft middle to this book in the sections titled ‘The Beloved’ and ‘New Oceans’. The first seems a rather brief, miscellaneous collection of poems only vaguely linked to the theme of love and includes an up-dating of the Icarus myth and an incongruously Yeatsian lyric, ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’. ‘New Oceans’ appears to be an ill-judged venture into exotic climes and idioms (I think Central America). But there are more interesting poems in the final section of the book, ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’. Here Carey is less intent on conventional narrative and (in contrast to the youthful recall of earlier poems) focuses on the moment as it passes and on last things. ‘Lineage’ is a confident celebration of the Irish landscape – confident enough to admit ignorance of names as well as to leave the poem more open-ended, with no evident pay-off. ‘Catching My Death’ is short-lined, elegant, unpushy. Sounding more like Michael Longley here, the boy has grown up, encountered much:

 

I find life now – much the same

As the robin does – wriggling

In my mouth

 

Mortality is now envisaged as a return to the earth, though some sort of reawakening into the future is imagined:

 

Until

The earth warms

And the soil opens

To the resurrection of the worms

images

Philip Gross, Carey’s supervisor on the South Glamorgan Creative Writing MA course, has written of the tenderness and detail of his work and this is true. He has a long list of competition wins and placings behind him and individual poems are touching and colourful and well-done. Distance covers a great deal of ground between childhood and old age and Carey is above all honest. But as a first book there are trails here which come to nothing and others which promise poems of a more adventurous kind. I hope that’s where the man in the coat is really heading.

An interview with Ron Carey about his work can be read here. 

What Shape is your Poetry Workshop?

With its proximity to some of the processes of politics, what has come to be the traditional form of the poetry workshop is perhaps easily derided. Billy Collins does this  (in his book, The Art of Drowning, 1995) and we all recognise both the speaker and the likely recipient of the speech:

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.   

It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now   

so immediately the poem has my attention,

like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

 

And I like the first couple of stanzas,

the way they establish this mode of self-pointing

that runs through the whole poem

As both leader and participant, I’ve suffered and witnessed suffering at the hands of egomaniacs, bullies and tyrants – those who come to workshops with no intention of listening to the proffered advice. What they are after is some exertion of personal power over a captive audience and, up to a point, workshop members are exactly that since the basic democratic premise is that we sit and listen with an open mind – a very open mind.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,

which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,   

but other times seems standoffish,

professorial in the worst sense of the word

like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.   

But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

imgres

Others will know the history better than I do but the poetry workshop seems to have been organised first by Philip Hobsbaum in the 1950s. Hobsbaum was born in London to orthodox Jewish parents who moved north in 1937, sensing the threat of war and fearing the anti-semitic currents of the time. In Bradford, Hobsbaum attended Belle Vue grammar school, then Cambridge, where he studied under F R Leavis at Downing College (“the greatest man I ever met – an amazing teacher”).

F R Leavis

He also encountered Thom Gunn, just graduated, who introduced him to the early work of Larkin, and, as editor of the student literary magazine Delta, he printed work by Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove. Most significantly, with these budding poets, he organised regular meetings. Hobsbaum possessed some training as an actor and the original idea (of what was to become ‘The Group’) was to encourage verse-speaking. But these meetings soon turned into exercises of Leavisite close analysis, or Practical Criticism in the style of I A Richards, plus a good deal of mutual support for the growing network of poets.

Maybe it’s just me,

but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.   

I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?   

And what’s an obbligato of snow?

Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.

At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The Group style of workshop spread as Hobsbaum himself moved to a variety of jobs from Cambridge, to London, Belfast and Glasgow in turn. Although there was some overlap in personnel with The Movement, the various incarnations of the Group had a more practical focus as there was no imposed programme or style. In Belfast (1962–1966), Hobsbaum organised what became known as The Belfast Group, including emerging authors Seamus Heaney, Edna and Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty. Heaney described the process in 1963: “members of the Group listen to a fellow member read a number of his poems which have been previously circulated on cyclostyled sheets. They then discuss the verse very thoroughly, frankly, informally – and the poet is there to counteract, resent, and/or benefit from the criticism”.

theme-arts-08
Philip Hobsbaum in later years (photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Personally, I first experienced the process at Lancaster University in the late 1970s, taking a ‘free ninth’ optional course in Creative Writing as part of a more traditional English degree. The meetings were led in Lonsdale College by David Craig and Heaney’s “previously circulated . . . cyclostyled sheets” have a very familiar ring to them. The format was somewhat different in the 4 years or so I spent attending two workshops in Oxford – copies of individual poems were handed round only on the day and discussion was spontaneous indeed (see my earlier blog ).

The other thing that throws me off,

and maybe this is just me,

is the way the scene keeps shifting around.   

First, we’re in this big aerodrome

and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,   

which makes me think this could be a dream.   

Then he takes us into his garden,

the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,   

though that’s nice, the coiling hose,

but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.   

imgres
Billy Collins

I currently attend 3 workshop groups. In none of these is work circulated beforehand. In one, the poet reads once only, the other members have photocopies and discussion ensues with the writer sworn to silence (this prevents self-defensive manoeuvres and conflict). In the second group, the same process is followed except that after the reading of the poem aloud by the poet, the members have about 10 minutes to WRITE their thoughts on the poem itself. Discussion then follows (the up-side of this is that all poets go home with annotated copies of their own work; the down side is it’s very hard work and discussion often follows the annotations, a little less fluidly).

There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here   

is really two poems, or three, or four,   

or possibly none.

 

But then there’s that last stanza, my favourite.

The third group plays the game of anonymity. Sufficient copies are put into an envelope, no identifying marks. Each member then picks out a poem (not their own) to read aloud. On first reading the members cannot see the text. Only on second reading can they follow the text on the page. There then follows the discussion. This produces the fascinating experience for the poet of hearing another person read the poem – and the reader’s later comments about how easy or otherwise the poem was to read are always interesting to those of us who think poetry is primarily an oral art.

This is where the poem wins me back,

especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse [. . . ]

I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work   

night after night collecting all these things

while the people in the house were fast asleep,   

and that gives me a very strong feeling,

a very powerful sense of something.

But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.   

Maybe that was just me.

Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

imgres

Easy to mock; easy to de-rail from their true purpose, but in creating his workshops (once more following Leavis) Hobsbaum believed a vital part of a student’s course was the rigorous discussion of text. To him, criticism was a fiercely rational, evaluative process, and any other use of language – “political propaganda, newspapers, advertisements, film, conceptual prose of all kinds” – had to be liable to the same level of scrutiny. In Essentials of Literary Criticism (1983), he maintained that “the training of a critic is also the training of a citizen”. This is surely right as the skills and sensitivities of the workshop, the class, the informal discussion of poetry anywhere, anytime, are exercises, in part, to develop the insight, the healthy scepticism, the ability to read and interpret whatever those vying for power, those possessed of power, want to say to us. Alan Brownjohn wrote in Hobsbaum’s obituary: “In a postmodernist, relativist age of education for entrepreneurship, Hobsbaum’s analytical and discriminatory approach might appear to be losing out, though reports of its death are an exaggeration.”

I’m sure Brownjohn is right and – as the UK General Election machine winds itself up ever higher – I’ll quote David Constantine’s important conclusion to his third Newcastle / Bloodaxe lecture in 2003: “We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen”.

imgres