A Defence of Ekphrasis

Antony Huen

Works of visual art, especially paintings and photographs, are indispensable to modern poetry, from the poems about Brueghel’s paintings, including those by W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams and Anne Stevenson, through the discursive meditations on a single painting (as in Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ and John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror) to the bulk of poems about family and historical photographs (including Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Portrait of My Father as a Young Man’ and Ted Hughes’ ‘Six Young Men’) and into the 2010s, Pascale Petit’s What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo, a fully-fledged recreation of Kahlo’s oeuvre. Ekphrasis, a Greek term for description, is now almost exclusively used to refer to literary writing about visual artworks, and in the modern sense of this word, poets continue to engage in the practice of ekphrasis.

Stephen Cheeke, in his book Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis (2008), calls writing about visual artworks a contemporary indulgence (2). In fact, poets’ obsession with ekphrasis has long been a bone of contention. In D. J. Enright’s Poets of the 1950’s: An Anthology of New English Verse, Kingsley Amis went so far to claim that readers do not want any more poems about  ‘paintings’ or ‘art galleries’ (17). Speaking of the sheer number of photographs in poetry, the Irish poet and critic Justin Quinn wrote in Poetry Review that ‘photographic ekphrasis’ has ‘become a set-piece of most collections’ (16). Yet, despite both poets’ and critics’ ambivalence about ekphrasis, the ekphrastic machine shows no sign of stopping. There has been an ironic parallel between the omnipresence of ekphrasis in modern poetry and the critical ambivalence about it.

If any resistance to ekphrasis in poetry has proved ineffectual, a defence of it against the resistance is also out of the question. The popularity of ekphrasis with poets, regardless of the criticism, remains constant. It is futile to isolate poetic ekphrasis from ekphrasis, and ekphrasis from modern poetry. We could continue to think of the ekphrastic practice as addictive, but a more sustainable discussion about ekphrasis would rest on our recognition of its ever-increasing share in modern poetry. What does modern ekphrasis speak to us about modern poetry and culture? If this epistemological inquiry is seen a defence, it will be a defence of the raison d’être of ekphrasis. A question to start with can be: how do we position ekphrasis as a player on the poetic and cultural stage?

I suggest using modern ekphrastic poetry as a vantage point from which we understand the interlinked evolutions of poetry, culture, modernity and our sense of humanity. Many poems from the poetic and ekphrastic canon point to this. W. H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ establishes the old masters and museums as triggers for ruminations about suffering and the staging of it as spectacle. Philip Larkin’s ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ dives into the capacity of photography to record a life, anticipating our preoccupation with photographic images. The title poem of Carol Ann Duffy’s collection Standing Female Nude is a model’s commentary about the painter’s artistry and his portrayal of her, enquiring into the power dynamics in life drawing and the limits of portraiture.

More recent poems show that modern ekphrasis returns to the version of life embodied by an artistic image but represents a confusion between the life in question and the image of it. Pascale Petit’s poems after Frida Kahlo are voiced by the Mexican painter, conflating the lyric ‘I’, Kahlo’s artistic self, as well as Kahlo’s doubled or multiplied selves in her self-portraits. We hear from multiple artists when a poem in Petit’s What the Water Gave Me describes ‘how art works on the pain spectrum’ (55). In The City with Horns (2011), the London-based poet Tamar Yoseloff recreates the biography of the artist couple Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, showing a lack of distinction between the violence in their relationship and that in their art (‘He’ll wrestle me to the floor | until I’m black and blue’) (25). The two colours evoke those in Pollock’s and Krasner’s paintings.

In his latest full collection Mapping the Delta (2016), George Szirtes appropriates the first line from Auden’s museum musings, calling the old masters ‘old bastards’ and saying they turn ‘our flesh to dust so we might turn | that dust to song’ (27). Szirtes draws parallels between visual art, poetry and music to dramatise the tendency for artists to transform a corporeal life into a work of art. The meta-ekphrastic poem is a sign of modern ekphrasis having established itself as a vehicle for understanding the raison d’être of the arts. Whether we want it or not, ekphrasis has made a tradition of its own within the tradition of modern poetry, and contemporary poetic ekphrasis is reminding us that the term “ekphrasis” originally referred to any kind of description. Today in a poem about a painting, for instance, the ekphrasis at work can be manifold. It brings to life the painting and the life or lives represented in it.

Works Cited

Cheeke, Stephen. Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis. Manchester UP, 2008.

Enright, D. J., editor. Poets of the 1950’s: An Anthology of the New English Verse. Kenyusha, 1955.

Petit, Pascale. What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo. Seren, 2010.

Quinn, Justin. ‘Glyn Maxwell’s Decade’. Poetry Review, 91 (2001) 13-16.

Szirtes, George. Mapping the Delta. Bloodaxe Books, 2016.

Yoseloff, Tamar. The City with Horns. Salt Publishing, 2011.

Born in Hong Kong, Antony Huen is a poet and academic. His latest publications include poems in amberflora, The Dark Horse and harana poetry, and articles in Hong Kong Review of Books, The Oxonian Review and Wasafiri. He is finishing a poetry chapbook and working towards a monograph on modern poets’ investment in the visual arts. With a PhD in English from the University of York, he is a Research Assistant Professor at the Open University of Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter: @AntonyHuen