This week we are studying poems that make explicit reference to the visual arts: usually only one work of art, although the references themselves are profound and sustained throughout the poem. The strict term for this term is “ecphrasis” or “ekphrasis” (depending on which source you consult, and how closely it adheres to the original Greek spelling with a k). The adjective for this sort of art is “ekphrastic.” Ekphrastic poems set up an expectation that their readers should either have already seen or would be willing to look up the picture in question (whether a painting or a photograph), because there’s going to be a one-to-one correspondence between phrases in the poem and details in the visual artwork.
Indeed, if you look up the etymology of “ekphrasis” you’ll see that it’s actually defined as “description”; it’s only by convention that we associate ekphrastic poems exclusively with the visual arts. In epic poetry, non-visual ekphrasis is much more common, and we call those epithets. These are descriptive passages in which the action of the epic is paused so that the poet can elaborate (often at great length) on a person’s or an object’s history. The Homeric epithet is the prototype of this sort of dilation, and if you’ve read the Iliad about the sack of ancient Troy, you are probably already nodding your head absent-mindedly as you recall the long catalog of Achaean ships in Book II or the many shorter descriptions of the Mycenaean characters (“many-minded Odysseus,” and etc). But this is partly how the transition in lyric poetry from any-old description to visual description began: some of the more famous of Homer’s epithets had to do with the weapons and armor of the Greek fighters: someone cocks a bow, and the narrating voice pauses and says, you may be wondering how this bow came to be in Ajax’s possession… and then goes on for a few hundred lines about how Ajax had to wrestle Thetis’s nephew’s pet goat with his teeth or some such (I’m making this up, but the gist is the same). Meanwhile, the bow has been cocked all that time, in a marvelous suspension of time that still oddly holds on to the tension of the moment. It might help to think of it as the camera spin that happens in the Wachowski siblings Matrix movies: somebody jumps, and they freeze time and give you the 360 degree panorama, and then time resumes, awesomely. I’ve given you Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad for the best-known of the Homeric ekphrastic passages, a dilation on the shield of Achilles, itself a work of art. Big men need really fancy shields, apparently.
The first thing we need to stipulate is that ekphrastic poetry does not need to be representing a fictive painting: it can be a photograph (and indeed two of this week’s poems do deal with real photographs that we can find). However, to count in this category, you need to be able to find the artwork yourself. So although Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a poem about a tapestry, that tapestry doesn’t exist in the real world. So that’s a self-reflexive poem about art in general rather than a poem about any particular tapestry. On the other hand, Elizabeth Bishop only later revealed that the subject of “Large Bad Picture” was an undisclosed landscape painting by George Hutchinson, so her first readers must’ve wondered exactly what she was critiquing. The work of art being described exists outside the ekphrastic poem.
The second thing to remember is that ekphrasis is an extremely old tradition, and that it will either operate under the assumption of mimesis (the idea that art reflects reality) or at least deal with that assumption explicitly. This should not be controversial for you, since it’s also true that ekphrastic art, in describing something that exists outside the poem’s textual plane of reference, is already deeply responsive. That’s not to say that that an ekphrastic poem can’t be ironic or critical of the visual art it is in dialogue with, but it does mean that the poem loses some essential part of its meaning if you do not look at it alongside its subject matter, or if you deny that the visual artwork has some connection to the poem.
The third thing to keep in mind is that ekphrastic poems that are lyrics (everything from this week is a lyric except Pope’s translation) still keep the perspective of a lyric speaker expressing a moment’s mood. So from the reader’s perspective there’s a comparison being made between the poem and the visual artwork. But the speaker of the poem, the persona that is constructed within the poem which is importantly distinct from the author of the text, is only looking at the visual artwork and responding to it in a human way. So by prompting you to think very carefully about the relationships between visual and poetic arts, I can’t let you forget that these are textual subjectivities pouring their hearts out to you, and it would be wrong to leave them hanging there without attending to them.