Monday, January 4, 2010

Thinking of Poetry Born of Image

I am a one trick pony these days; my poetic imagination seems more and more linked to image. I like the idea of the visual as a rough draft, something that needs translation by the poet in order to be fully alive. I'm under no illusion that the painting needs a poem, only that the poem adds a new dimension, allows for a quality of understanding that the painting alone does not fully hold. I keep returning to the fact that architecture students in ancient Greece needed to write poems about the buildings they studied right alongside their sketches. Their professors knew that the students would apprehend something different in the writing about the great buildings than they could by drawing them or learning their history.

My favorite essay on ekphrasis is by Terry Blackhawk, "Ekphrastic Poetry: Entering and Giving Voice to Works of Art." It is the opening essay in the anthology, Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art edited by Tonya Foster and Kristin Prevallet. In this piece she links ideas of apprehending art to both the visual and the literal. We enter and become the poem or the painting; we change the vision by looking and looking again, each time gaining a different perspective on the poem, on the photograph.

In the past, I was wildly skeptical of ekphrastic poetry. The poems produced often seemed stuffy and wooden. Why not use your own imagination, I wondered, instead of usurping someone else's art? Maybe it's because I am more interested in a more universal, multi-dimensional art than I used to be, or maybe it's because I realize there are some images that haunt me that I am more interested in collaborating with a photographer or a sculptor from across time or countries.

If anyone has a favorite essay on this subject or a favorite exphrastic poem - I'd love to hear from you. I'm especially interested in contemporary ekphrasis that may come from a bumper sticker or a movie still.


  1. Susan, have you read Allison Benis White's debut collection Self-Portrait With Crayon (2009)? It's entirely prose poems, many of which are directly inspired by Degas's paintings of dancers. It's a compelling read - I highly recommend it.

  2. Susan, thanks for this. I must confess that I'm still in the skeptical mood about ekphrastic poetry. I'll be happy to follow along as you discuss it and see if anything opens up for me!

  3. Oh, the skeptical mood! I know it well. At their worst, ekphrastic poems are pretentious and deadly dull. Yet, what I found so compelling in the ekphrastic poems I've written are the three different strands of ideas that come together - what is in the photograph, what I imagine is happening for the photographer, and my own intrusion. I am going to be writing an essay on this topic - so I am more than happy for the skeptic to ask questions at any time. Thanks for letting me extend my thinking...

  4. Susan, perhaps one of my hesitations is the idea of a piece of art as an isolated "event" or "object." I wonder about stepping on the artist's toes so to speak, or worse yet, misinterpreting something about the work. Perhaps that is my own weakness...doubt.

  5. Sandy, There is an on-line experiment called Broadsided Press. Elizabeth Bradfield matches poets and visual artists. Most of the time she accepts a poem and then different artists can call "dibs" on it and then illustrate it. One of my poems was Broadsided a few years ago. The visual artist went in a direction I never would have gone. At first it felt "wrong" but after a short while I grew to appreciate that poems (or visual arts) go out into the world and they are meant to be seen in different ways. Broadsided also does a "switcheroo" when poets can write on a piece of visual art. Again, I know what you mean -- the artist has a certain territory -- are we allowed to enter?