Friday, March 28, 2008

Trainer poems

Kay Ryan calls ekphrastic poems "trainer poems" here (scroll down a bit):

I should start by admitting that I have a certain prejudice. I am inclined to see poems-about-paintings as easy poems, or exercises, or trainer poems. The writer is playing tennis against a nice, solid backboard. The artwork is already there; all the poet has to do is dance around in front of something both fixed and culturally valuable. One feels a sense of pre-approval if one writes about Great Art.

But then, later, after exploring some of her own ekphrastic impulses, Ryan writes:

But enough complaining. An artist I’ve returned to over and over in poems is not a painter but the French composer, Eric Satie. In contrast to the thoroughly not-Cassatt poem above, the Satie poem that follows IS, I think, very Satie—and ekphrastic—even though it’s a pure fabrication. Because I’m going to define an ekphrastic poem as one that invokes the spirit of the artist (without having to describe features of any actual work.) Call me a cheater.

"Invoking the spirit of the artist"--how does that strike as a definition of ekphrasis?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Holy Women at the Sepulchre, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311.

This morning, I am the woman in orange.
My sister, the faithful mother in green,
and someone we know well is the harlot
in her fading scarlet pleats.

Our heads, sweet Duccio, so identical and round,
so filled with a species of love
like duty and doubt,
defy pious hands.

You give us a Tuscan angel, extracted from Matthew,
modeled on our brothers, our husbands,
and perched on the emptied sepulchre
like a bird, or a bat.

Our varieties of myrrh, he suggests, you suggest
without words, our various aloes might as well
be poured onto the ground,
absorbed in sand.

Dead Duccio, we knew your children who gave away
their inheritance to their mother,
blessed woman who mixed these pigments
that settle into our strong faces.

Dead Duccio, every morning of our lives at mass
one woman or another rises up again, as a mountain,
as a mourner on a stuccoed wall that opens
into a Gospel we bless with our open eyes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

In Eckersberg's Cloisters

In Eckersberg’s Cloisters, San Lorenzo fuori le mura

The arches move, the light moves.
Three brothers stroll away. A fourth
brings a bushel of fruit from the gardens.
And against a pillar, stairs rising north
from his head, another brother attends
to a text--the arced afternoon light fails
to reach him, no matter how I stand, tilt
my head, cover one eye with this book.
Only a slender lizard lies still and warms
its blood with the sun; the walls, meanwhile,
grow green at the edges, stucco peeled from brick
like skin around a fresh and gradual wound.

First appeared in Ekphrasis

Here's the first draft, from a long time back.

Holy Saturday

William H. Johnson's Lamentation from around 1944.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

Here's a challenge. Choose one of the images linked to from this lectionary site and write a brief ekphrastic meditation on Good Friday, on the Crucifixion, on what it might be like to paint such a thing, on what the uses (and uselessness) of art might be in the face of a central event/mystery of Christian life and history.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

George Szirtes Photograph Poems

Ross: Children of the Ghetto

Love, we were young once, and ran races
over rough ground in our best shiny shoes,
we kicked at stones, we fell over, pulled faces.

Our knees were filthy with our secret places,
with rituals and ranks, with strategy and ruse.
Love, we were young once and ran races

to determine the most rudimentary of graces
such as strength and speed and the ability to bruise.

These lines from one of George Szirtes' eight photograph poems featured in the February 2008 issue of Poetry.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Christian Wiman at Wheaton

Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, poet and essayist will visit Wheaton's campus next Tuesday, March 25.

After refreshments at 3:30, he will invite a spirited conversation on what poetry does, why we value it, what's good and bad about contemporary poetry, etc. He will then give a poetry reading at 7:30.

It is more than worth checking out his Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. A few of the essays from that collection have appeared in print and online. Notes on Poetry and Religion includes this quotation, among many other provocative notions:

Language can create faith but can't sustain it. This is true of all human instruments, which can only gesture toward divinity, never apprehend it. This is why reading the Bible is so often a frustrating, even spiritually estranging, experience. Though you can feel sometimes (particularly in the Gospels) the spark that started the fire of faith in the world—and in your heart—the bulk of the book is cold ash. Thus we are by our own best creations confounded, that Creation, in which our part is integral but infinitesimal, and which we enact by imagination but cannot hold in imagination's products, may live in us. God is not the things whereby we imagine him.

And this one:

I think it is a grave mistake for a writer to rely on the language of a religion in which he himself does not believe. You can sense the staleness and futility of an art that seeks energy in gestures and language that are, in the artist's life, inert. It feels like a failure of imagination, a shortcut to a transcendence that he either doesn't really buy, or has not earned in his work. Of course, exactly what constitutes "belief " for a person is a difficult question. One man's anguished atheism may get him closer to God than another man's mild piety. There is more genuine religious feeling in Philip Larkin's godless despair and terror than there is anywhere in late Wordsworth.

The whole collection is well worth a read.

You can find many of Wiman's poems on line as well:

The River
Every Riven Thing and This Mind of Dying
This Inwardness, This Ice
Darkness Starts and Reading Herodotus

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Family Photograph--Vona Groarke

In the window of the drawing-room
there is a rush of white as you pass
in which the figure of your husband is,
for a moment, framed. He is watching you.

His father will come, of course,
and, although you had not planned it,
his beard will offset your lace dress,
and always it will seem that you were friends.

All morning, you had prepared the house
and now you have stepped out
to make sure that everything
is in its proper place: the railings whitened,

fresh gravel on the avenue, the glasshouse
crystal when you stand in the courtyard
expecting the carriage to arrive at any moment.
You are pleased with the day, all month it has been warm.

They say it will be one of the hottest summers
the world has ever known.
Today, your son is one year old.
Later, you will try to recall

how he felt in your arms--
the weight of him, the way he turned to you from sleep,
the exact moment when you knew he would cry
and the photograph be lost.

But it is not lost.
You stand, a well-appointed group
with an air of being pleasantly surprised.
You will come to love this photograph

and will remember how, when he had finished,
you invited the photographer inside
and how, in celebration of the day,
you drank a toast to him, and summer-time.

From Flight and Earlier Poems by Vona Groarke

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Echo, after Palestrina

A voice in a high granite room
can sing a chord with itself,
can be its own deep, broad brother
of sound. Together by accident,
intent, it doesn’t matter.
Here alone with a radio,
I am not alone with a radio.
I am a full, full, resonant room.


First appeared in Teaching English in the Two-Year College.

If you haven't noticed

I am beginning to post a handful of my own ekphrastic poems. I mean, why not? The course is over and it's my blog, right? Here's an older poem, one that I remembered while trying to write my own poem about David Hooker's ceramic work.

After Her Ceramics Class Results in Many Heavy Christmas Presents from Your Sullen Teenage Daughter

You try to break the gifts while she is gone: heavy, contorted bowls, mugs with no handles.
Knock them to the floor with malice of accident.
The only lovely cup she made--one that curves like a young boy’s shoulder,
the one with blue glazes in several shades--leaks.
You learn how a green dish shines in the afternoon light as it flies, before it gouges
a smile in your stucco wall.
I know you grieve, that you love the wall more than the deadly dish.
I know you wish--small suggestion you’ve held at the back of your throat--for her to give
you something more delicate, something lighter than a human head.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Have I mentioned this smart site?

An anthology of ekphrasis in poetry and fiction, complete with useful critical quotes, excerpts, and what not. Perhaps, if I were a web designer, this is what this site should look like. Thankfully, it's there all by the grace of Damian J. Rollison .

One of my favorite bits is where he layers criticism of the artist Parmagianino with excerpts from John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

Monday, March 10, 2008

On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven--Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain.
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs a-sprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like the scullions in the fairy-tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds; oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spell-bound under the aging sun.
Music my rampart, and my only one.

For more of Millay's poetry

Saturday, March 8, 2008

For hanging

A Curse--For Hanging--dw

When you hang
your painting
may the hammer scar
your wall, a hole
behind the woman's
pretty head.

Notions: Matisse, a Parrot, and the Fate of Wallace Stevens

Matisse has fallen asleep
in a puddle of pastels.

He awakens at a vast red table
of his own making.

A bowl of blue lemons
becomes the center

and also a flower
imported from a province

of green belief arranges
herself as another

center—head and torso
filled with blossoms

requiring no specific pigment
or love.

So the parrot who rouses
the prodigal to return

disappears in the medieval
sun—splash of several

feathers & losses—and carries
away Wallace Stevens

dressed in his best white suit
of cotton, with orchids

pressed in his pockets. Beauty,
they sing, in a tongue

only the truest believers will know.


The Museum Guard--David Hernandez

My condolences to the man dressed
for a funeral, sitting bored
on a gray folding chair, the zero

of his mouth widening in a yawn.
No doubt he's pictured himself inside
a painting or two around his station,

stealing a plump green grape
from the cluster hanging above
the corkscrew locks of Dionysus,

or shooting arrows at rosy-cheeked cherubs
hiding behind a woolly cloud.
With time limping along

like a Bruegel beggar, no doubt
he's even seen himself taking the place
of the one crucified: the black spike

of the minute hand piercing his left palm,
the hour hand penetrating the right,
nailed forever to one spot.

From A House Waiting for Music by David Hernandez

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Painting--John Balaban

The stream runs clear to its stones;
the fish swim in sharp outline.
Girl, turn your face for me to draw.
Tomorrow, if we should drift apart,
I shall find you by this picture.

From Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry translated by John Balaban.