This post is a guest blog by poet and art critic Steven Winn.
It was, so far as I remember, the first ekphrastic poem that made its mark on me. It was a good one, indeed a famously good one – W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” From its invocation of The Old Masters in the second line to its masterly conjuring of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the poem is a shining fulfillment of the ekphrastic form – which, to put it loosely, is a poem or other piece of writing that references a specific work of visual art.
A full discussion of the origins and variations of ekphrasis, a term which dates back to the ancient Greeks and is not strictly limited to writing about visual art, is well above my pay grade. A passing point on the matter, to suggest how broad and deep the topic is: Is Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box ekphrastic art? Are the industrial Brillo boxes on which they are made a kind of found art, or do they become so by virtue of Warhol’s deadpan reinvention of them?
As it happens, that aside raises both the allure and challenges of ekphrastic poems. At the heart of the matter, it seems to me, is the paired questions of how the poet uses, adapts, transforms, transcends – or possibly misuses and corrupts – the artwork and how the reader receives the finished poem. To put it simply, it’s complicated.
Back to Auden’s “Musée” for a moment, and my powerful reaction to it. The poem is glorious in its own right, independent of the reader’s knowledge of the Bruegel painting – a meditation on memory, suffering, the joy of living and our transitory experience of it. But if you happen to be familiar with Icarus, as I was, a kind of chiming chord goes off. You “see” the painting in your mind’s eye, and register Auden’s seeing of it through the details and language he chooses (the ploughman, those “white legs disappearing into the green/Water”, that “expensive delicate ship”) that seem to alchemize paint on a centuries-old canvas into a kind of inner sight – an insight, as it were, into the poem’s deep interior space.
I did not, until much later, go search out the Bruegel painting in an art book. I enjoyed the parallax view of my own memory of Icarus and the one Auden had placed in conversation with it.
Now, of course, the history of art is in our pockets. No one has to go the library and pull a heavy art history tome off the shelf. Read an ekphrastic poem, and you can find the artwork in a matter of seconds on your cell phone. Inevitably, when someone brings an ekphrastic poem to our writing group, the phones come out and the painting, sculpture, or photograph is there in everyone’s hand. Many ekphrastic poems, especially those published online, appear adjacent to the visual art that inspired or induced them.
I’m of mixed mind about this. No doubt an ekphrastic poem invites the comparison and scrutiny. By its direct reference to a work of art, whether in a head note or in the body of the text, the poem has an obligation. Did the poet get it “right?” Did she faithfully capture some essential quality about the object? Did he do it justice? Do something more than simply describe? Make their own work of art out of the material of another?
Then again, there’s something reductive about that kind of response. It’s as if the poem were being fact checked or submitted to some kind of means test. Yes, we do this as readers with other kinds of poems – ones that allude to myth, history, other poems, etc. But there’s something different about poems based on a specific artwork, a tendency to place the art and poem in a more immediate one-to-one relation to each other.
What can happen is a kind of cognitive dissonance, a reading of the poem that’s too heavily informed by the reader’s external, perhaps cursory “check” of the artwork. I’m not suggesting that readers should remain in blissful ignorance. Only that they keep an open mind – and eye – to the fruitful liberties, departures, eccentricities, and transcending visions ekphrastic poets employ.
Great examples abound, from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Anne Carson’s Van Gogh-inspired “The Starry Night,” Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” to lots of poems based on Edward Hopper paintings. Many poets make the allusions explicit; others embed the artwork so deeply it becomes a kind of submerged river or groundwater.
I’ve written ekphrastic poems of both types. Several are overt homages to Paul Klee. Others cite less well-known artists. (In general, I think, the degree of difficulty goes up when an artwork is very well known; a Mona Lisa poem better be damn good.) At the risk of playing favorites among my own work, I remain attached to “In Thessaly,” a poem that came about after a visit to the tomb section of a museum in Thessaloniki, Greece.
I like to think that it both is and isn’t an ekphrastic poem. In my mind, at least, it occupies that double-vision space of what I saw and remembered and what I made of it. There’s no reason for a reader to know any of that. But I do – an ekphrastic secret I hope the poem contains without ever quite confessing it.
If you’d been rich
you never would have
with wife, lithe boys and concubines
not to mention
servants bound to serve
when breathless night or wine-
raked thirst or tunneled
webby dreams closed in and
in the darkness
on your own.
That would have passed, of course,
and soon, as sweet murmurs,
inquiring looks, offers of cool
water and consoling hands were
fitted around you
like a barrel-vaulted tomb,
where, along with paintings
of your wife and children
of giant birds, stubby trees
and braided vines,
an image of yourself
would loyally stand guard
above your resting form.
Steven Winn is a San Francisco poet and arts critic. He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Classical Voice, Opera Magazine, and others. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Antioch Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, and Verse Daily.
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