14 Ways to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

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!

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

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  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”.

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  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”.

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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.

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  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”.

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  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.

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  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’.

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  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”.

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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

Stand-to-Arms: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937)

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There’s an extraordinary moment in the final pages of David Jones’ magnificent poem-novella, In Parenthesis (1937), when his hero, John Ball, dying at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, imagines the tourist industry that has since grown up around the World War One battlefields. In his last moments, he abandons his rifle: “leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas”. Jones’ footnote acknowledges the risk of this sounding anachronistic but insists he remembers such discussions among the soldiers, how holiday-makers will later be photographed “on our parapets”. It’s the unexpected sense of territorial ownership that makes him angry (not the sense of injustice at different lives unfolding so differently): he compares it to strangers “occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations”.

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This searing, revelatory sense of the documentary – what it was like to be there – is just one of the reasons to read Jones’ book. Another extended footnote considers the multiple usage of the hessian material of sandbags. In their intended role “they constituted, filled with earth, the walls, ceiling, and even floor surface of half our world”. But it was also “utilized as a wrapping for food; for a protection to the working parts of a rifle, and cover for bayonet against rust. The firm, smooth contour of a steel-helmet was often deprived of its tell-tale brightness [. . .] by means of a piece of stitched-on sack-cloth. The sand bag could be cut open and cast over the shoulders against the weather or tied round the legs against the mud or spread as a linen cloth on the fire-step for a meal, or used in extremity as a towel or dish-cloth; could be bound firmly as an improvised bandage or sewn together as a shroud for the dead”. Such human and humane improvisation in the midst of nightmare reminds us that Jones did not intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book”, but rather one about a “good kind of peace”. He himself gives us another reason to read his book in these contemporary times that we consider so ‘difficult’: “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us”.

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For those interested in poetic techniques, Jones mixes prose and verse as naturally as walking and running. He is fiercely allusive throughout, particularly drawing on Shakespeare, Malory, The Mabinogion, The Song of Roland, other Welsh and Anglo-Saxon poems, Romantic and Classical poetry. TS Eliot tends to use his intertextual or allusive techniques forensically to dissect our Modern condition, how far we fall short of heroism, how far we are from spiritual pilgrimage, how sordid and smutty our lives have become. Curiously, Jones achieves something opposite, managing to elevate his fallible, cursing Tommies to some sort of reflection of the heroism of the past. The fields of northern France are compared to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in ways that establish rather than sever the links between myth and legend and the twentieth century. Bursts of shrapnel are associated with “the Thunder God” as discussed in Fraser’s The Golden Bough; the death of soldiers is rhymed with the myth of the king buried to protect and make the land fruitful. Jones’ interest in and identification with the ordinary soldiers is also expressed through his use of their words, in vivid, direct, often (knowingly) hilarious forms of demotic which put Eliot’s awkward efforts at doing the ordinary people’s voices into the shade.

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For a certain type of soldier, Jones tells us, trench life in 1916 with the “infantry in tin-hats, with ground-sheets over their shoulders, with sharpened pine-stakes in their hands”, brought Shakespeare’s Henry V “pretty constantly to the mind”. It’s from that play that one of the recurring phrases in In Parenthesis is drawn. In Part 3, Lance-Corporal Lewis sings as he walks, yet he sings softly, “because of the Disciplines of War”. Jones’ soldiers treat the idea with both respect and sarcasm on differing occasions though it’s striking that in the midst of battle, as things begin to turn against them:

 

Captain Cadwaladr restores

the Excellent Disciplines of the Wars.

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The book invites the reader in with knockabout drill on the parade ground at home to begin with. Then a long march to the port of embarkation, the troops looking smart as they march through town but once beyond civilian observation “with a depressing raggedness of movement and rankling of tempers they covered another mile between dismal sheds, high and tarred”. Proleptic of what lies ahead, they get lost among the port buildings, eventually waiting for departure to France in a “spacious shed [. . .] open at either end, windy and comfortless”.

Part 2 has the men marching through France, Jones capturing their first naïve witnessing of war’s destruction where a shell has fallen on the road they are pursuing: “men were busy here shovelling rubble into a great torn upheaval in the paving. A splintered tree scattered its winter limbs, spilled its life low on the ground. They stepped over its branches and went on”. One of the great themes of In Parenthesis ironically is the presence of Nature, often offering some consolation, some mythic pattern of life, death and re-birth to the soldiers, as well as (here) being subject to the destructions of human warfare. The natural processes of time, night and day, the seasons turning – also offer some consolation. Here is the magnificent opening to Part 4, John Ball seeing dawn break over the trenches:

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So thus he sorrowed till it was day and heard the foules sing, then somewhat he was comforted.

 

Stand-to.

Stand-to-arms.

Stealthily, imperceptibly stript back, thinning

night wraps

unshrouding, unsheafing—

and insubstantial barriers dissolve.

This blind night-negative yields uncertain flux.

At your wrist the phosphorescent dial describes the equal seconds.

 

The flux yields up a measurable body; bleached forms emerge and stand.

 

Where their faces turned, grey wealed earth bared almost of last clung weeds of night weft—

behind them the stars still shined.

 

The final seventh Part breaks more consistently into verse. Jones seldom uses line breaks to create the swaying rhythmic units of lyric verse but more usually for disjunction. His free verse recreates the soldier’s eye swinging from one thing to another, often in panic and confusion, the sudden bursting of danger from left field, from shells above, mines below. It allows him also to recreate the thrilling illogic of the stream of consciousness of his fighting men. Private Ball survives longer than many but is eventually wounded.

 

[. . .] it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker

below below below.

 

When golden vanities make about,

you’ve got no legs to stand on.

 

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

 

He crawls away, encumbered by the weight of his rifle which he eventually leaves behind. An Ophelia-like figure, the Queen of the Woods, cuts garlands for the dying soldiers, whispering quietly to each of them, according respect (when the real circumstances of their deaths received anything but) elevating their passing to ritual. (Here is a brief animation and reading of this moment). That Jones can achieve this mythic sense, simultaneously dwelling on the clumsy encumbrance of Private Ball’s rifle, and allowing his fleeting thoughts about the future Cook’s tourists is a breath-taking moment of literary achievement. The whole is “a work of genius” (TS Eliot) and “a masterpiece” (WH Auden). For Adam Thorpe it “towers above any other prose or verse memorial of that war (indeed, of any war)”; for Thomas Dilworth it is “probably the greatest work of British Modernism written between the wars”.

 

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David Jones

 

I have been reading little other than In Parenthesis for the last few weeks. The narrative precision clarifies with each re-reading, as does the characterisation, the recurring motifs become more significant, the gem-like passages of exquisite poetry leap out. I have come to it very late; a reason for some regret but it is the best thing I have read in years. Perhaps the title put me off. It sounds arid and a bit tricksy. Jones suggests the parenthesis was the war itself (perhaps again indicating his real concern with how we live our peace), though he also cryptically adds “because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis”. The whole work concludes with lines taken from The Song of Roland: “the man who does not know this has not understood anything”.