Friday, November 2, 2007


This article by Stephen Burt in The Believer is finally on line. I like this quotation:

The most important precepts are the simplest: look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common—do they stand for one another, or for the same thing? Are they opposites, irreconcilable alternatives? Or do they fit together to represent a world? Look for self-descriptive or for frame-breaking moments, when the poem stops to tell you what it describes. (Classic Ashbery poems tend to end with these: “I will keep to myself. / I will not repeat others’ comments about me.”; “A randomness, a darkness of one’s own.”) Use your own frustration, or the poem’s apparent obliquity, as a tool: many of these poems include attacks on assumptions or pretenses that make ordinary conversational language, and newspaper prose, so smooth.

A couple of years ago, I got to interview Stephen for Avatar Review. He is very smart.I asked him a little bit about ekphrasis and he said:

At Yale in the 1990s, it seemed that everyone got attracted to ekphrasis—John Hollander had just written a book on the subject and taught classes on it. When I was writing some of those poems I was surrounded by poets and critics who took a strong interest in how poets could represent paintings (and sculpture and architecture and other visual arts).

I started writing poems about paintings before that, though—I wrote the Velazquez poem when I lived in Oxford. I like paintings. Paintings with character and narrative components—and you can find those components in apparently abstract artists, if you look; I often find them in Franz Kline—give poets a chance to sort-of make up, and sort-of discover, all sorts of stories and scenes. Ekphrases also let you flip back and forth between talking about a work of art as an object (and about the situation of its making), on the one hand, and talking about what the work depicts on the other—between, if I can use the terms here, diegetic and extradiegetic perspectives. I like poems (and critics) who can do those kinds of flips.

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