Ekphrasis may have started with Homer, describing the "mighty and peerless" Achilles in The Iliad, Book XVIII, 1- 617. At this moment, Achilles ia "a fallen giant" in despair, "enraged" and "idling": he failed to protect Patroclus, "he whom I honoured as my own self," who has been killed by Hector. Patroclus's body is being dragged through Troy. The time is ripe for a hero, but Achilles has lost his armor, which appears to symbolize his will. As they do, the gods intervene: Hephaestus is charged with creating new armor, in particular a new shield:
.... On the shield also, he portrayed in gold a fine vineyard laden with grapes, though the clusters of heavy fruit were black, and the vines were tied to silver poles. Round it was a ditch of blue enamel, and outside that a fence of tin and a single path led to it, that served for all the coming and going of harvest time. Girls and youths, were joyfully carrying off the ripe grapes in wicker baskets, while in their midst a boy sang .... Then on the shield he showed a herd of straight-horned cattle, in gold and tin, lowing as they trotted from their byre to graze at a murmuring stream beside the swaying rushes. Four herdsmen, also in gold, walked beside them, and nine swift dogs ran behind. But in the next scene two savage lions in amongst the leaders were gripping a bull that bellowed loudly, dragging it off, pursued by youths and dogs .... On the shield, also, the lame master-smith added meadowlands full of white sheep, in a fine valley, with sheepfolds, huts and pens ....
These are only a few lines, describing, apparently in direct fashion, rapidly multiplying images on a shield, images so many and so detailled that this shield would have needed to be the size of the earth. And, of course, that is the point. This is Homer.
We know other instances of ekphrasis. W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" discusses this Breughel
in a mere two sentences:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The soldiers surrounding Achilles may have worried for his sanity; Icarus's flight to the sun, a man trying to be a god, could not succeed. And yet "children [are] ... skating on a pond," and in the painting's foreground "the ploughman may/Have heard the splash" but it was not his own death, so he continues on, the "sunshone as it had to" and the "expensive delicate ship," closest to Icarus, neglects him altogether. The world continues on its axis, as we weep.
My husband, Charles Tarlton, composes poetry about painting, probably because he has been with me as I paint for the last 27+ years. He says: "ekphrastic poetry should aim to illuminate aspects of the painting that might elude a more conventional prose description. It does this by setting up illuminating images and associations to make us see the painting differently. Like any form of commentary, it is meant to broaden our view of the subject work. But, importantly, it aims to do this by creating further art within which the painting is an element. It is art about art, locating the painting within the poetic field in such a way as to suggest almost a third synthetic work, a work that is neither the painting nor the poem."
I think his poems strive, not to describe the undescribable, with Homer, and not to unlock the meaning of the art, as Auden has done, but to describe artistic process, a thing that is, in its way, also indescribable and filled with meaning. Here is an ekphrastic poem that he has written about my work.
Ann Knickerbocker’s Dappled
“Although I know it’s no way to look at abstract paintings,” the ekphrastic docent said, “still I see a raven here, on the dead burned stump of the last tree somewhere in an ominous desert.”
[Yellow stripes, pink and orange ones, too, and some blue perpendiculars, faded blue against a beige sky.]
“It’s not about anything, “ I said, “and that’s not a crow!”
[A patch of royal blue and some wide brushstrokes coming out of it. One turns quickly up, and voilà, a crow.]
“He is looking across to a red butte,” the docent continued, “rising up into a wild pink and shadowed sky; rain or worse is draining out of the clouds.
[She has slashed back and forth with a loaded brush and now she lets the drips run down.]
“A layering of pastels,” I said, “see, a working of quick red strokes, and only then does the red spill. Why does it need a name?”
We both focused then on the middle and to the right, where, completing the mystery, the word “DAPPLED” was stenciled in and then faintly painted over in white.
[It was that word, but you know, in this context, it’s hardly a word.]
“I know...I know it’s none of these things,” the docent cried, “that it’s even wilder than I’ve said, but I’m trying to get you to see it.”
in the gallery
she offered to trade this one
for a smaller drawing
of a horse looking out of
a stall, waiting for visitors
why does the smaller
canvas pull everything in
closer and tighter
but the larger painting is free
to riot in all directions
it’s a dream report
of first impulses layered
over with fiercer
thoughts in depths of pentimenti
before there was anything
And again here, how and why we artists paint. Enjoy!
Two Ekphrastic Tanka Prose
1. The Negation of Impulse
I decided to do only what I meant to do and not what other people did. When I could observe what others did I tried to remove that from my work. My work became a constant negation of impulse....
The first thing she did was coat the large canvas with a faint sort of gray all over (got by mixing a little black in the gesso). Then with a roller she laid broad overlapping X’s from corner to corner, first in red, then brown, then orange, and finally green mixed with black. A diaphanous layer of white put on with a foot-wide hand scraper and the canvas was ready for painting.
now go very slow
red up to a clot
with a black dot as center
setting the stage
so you just stand there
looking, and let your mind go
feel the whole idea
in your fingers, but hold it
till you just cannot resist
ideas of order
deeply felt in the layers
slow the strokes down
let your mind see a dream
let orange peek out freely
2. An Abstract Expression
“My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square, they are rectangles a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.”
The painter stood up close to the big canvas (taller than he was, though he was tall) and pressed a small thick nub of burnt sienna oil paint against the splatters and scratches with his thumb. In his other hand he held a two-inch angled sash paint brush dripping white enamel that he suddenly swung in a long arc, like a comet of thin white mist across the upper left quadrant of the painting. In a minute there were several long feathery white drips running down and around the dollop toward the floor.
show the line run on
to the end of the hard pull
what exactly light
means, how it does or doesn’t
bend, way out to the end
look under the paint
see there’s more paint under it
and more under that
until the painting comes up
in ten dimensions at once
there is no such thing
as a straight line, the closer
you get to the light
the more the bumps and fibers twist
away from plumb, roughly
Do you have an ekphrastic poem of your own to send me? Ship it to me via the email on my website (www.annknickerbocker.com) or send me a link in the comments section below, and I will publish the best one(s).