Thursday, May 29, 2008

Keats-On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles--John Keats

My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet 'tis a gentle luxury to weep,
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep,
Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

“Ekphrasis is about physical as much as verbal translation, about moving the visual object from its original residence into the house of words and then restoring and revivifying it” –Grant F. Scott, from The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis and the Visual Arts (University Press of New England, 1994).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A few classic examples of Romantic ekphrasis

I'll be gone on a writing/editing jag for a day or two, then off on vacation. But in the meantime, I thought I'd post a few classic examples of ekphrasis, mostly from the Romantic poets who made the practice central to lyric poetry, taking it away from more narrative moments in epic poems (think Achilles' shield). Here's Shelly's poem on what he believed to be Leonardo's Medusa. However, most scholars now think the version of the mythical character Shelley viewed in Florence is not by Leonardo at all, but by an anonymous Flemish painter. Leonardo's Medusa does not, apparently, survive. So what remains? Ekphrasis.

On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery--Percy Bysshe Shelley

It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky, 
Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;
Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;
Its horror and its beauty are divine.
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
The agonies of anguish and of death.

Yet it is less the horror than the grace
Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone;
Whereon the lineaments of that dead face
Are graven, till the characters be grown
Into itself, and thought no more can trace;
'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown
Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,
Which humanize and harmonize the strain.

And from its head as from one body grow,
As [ ] grass out of a watery rock,
Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow
And their long tangles in each other lock,
And with unending involutions shew
Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock
The torture and the death within, and saw
The solid air with many a ragged jaw.

And from a stone beside, a poisonous eft
Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;
Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft
Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise
Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,
And he comes hastening like a moth that hies
After a taper; and the midnight sky
Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.

'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;
For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare
Kindled by that inextricable error, 35
Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror
Of all the beauty and the terror there—
A woman's countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Musical Excurstion--Part Three*

Option Three: Attend a live performance, rehearsal or ritual use of music (a worship service or patriotic gathering, for instance). In addition to listening closely to the music, pay attention to what you observe and what you experience in your body. Attend to the way the musicians (which might include you) move and use their bodies to produce sound (fingers, breath, muscles). Notice also their emotional reactions and facial expressions. How do their “feelings” translate into sound? Observe how various musicians work together, or how a solo performer engages or ignores her audience. What about this social experience of music makes it differ from listening to a recording? To what uses is this music put (is it an escape, a source of connection, background music, a didactic force)? How does the “utility” of the music affect your sense of its artistic value? Describe as well the physical space in which you encounter this music. In what ways do the walls, the floors, the benches affect the sound and sense of the music?

After you’ve left the venue, either right away of some time later, try to recall the experience in as vivid detail as you can, focusing especially on the music you remember. Which musical quality stays with you? And which non-musical detail remains?

Deep(er) Contexts(and how they might find their way into your writing about music)

1) With a bit of research, identify the narrative elements you would need to know in order to better understand a musical work—setting, character, point of view, conflict(s). If it’s a love song or an oratorio, what’s the story that structures the piece? What moment in the biblical or mythical or historical record is being portrayed? What elements of that narrative are left out? Which characters disappear and which are emphasized? Who is “telling” this part of the tale? Consider “finishing” or “unfinishing” the story with your work.

2) What kinds of cultural conflict or personal upheaval pervaded the artist’s world when the work was made or performed—a war, death of a beloved, divorce, illness, moment of cultural excitement, etc.? How are these events present in the work, implicitly or explicitly? Or how does the work move away from these conflicts, masking them, or using the music as a sanctuary? Is the work in protest to the situation? Is the work about coming to peace with its surroundings? By knowing the conflicted situation within which the work emerged, how do you feel closeness or distance from its work?

3) In contrast to chaos and conflict, investigate the typical habits, manners, and patterns that might have been part of the work’s emergence (or the lives it represents). What work was done as this song was sung? Who has made love with the music in the background? Where does this Bach chorale come in a typical Lutheran service? How might the work itself or the objects to which it refers have had daily, practical uses in the lives of people? What do these details add to the structure or pattern of your poem, story or essay? How do they change your sense of the work to which you’re attending?

4) Biographical context, especially the way a particular work either represents a period of an artist’s life or affects his or her life, is unavoidably attractive. Read a biography of the performer or composer and see if the work you’re listening to has been mentioned. How did the creator of that work view it? What might the artist have said or done just before the work was made? What obvious or hidden impetus led to the work? How did she feel once it had been completed? What did he claim to intend that is missing or (indeed) present? What effect did this work have on his reputation? Where did she rank the work in relation to other pieces? If this piece is highly popular, how might the artist feel about it now? What technical problem did the artist work out in completing this sonata or symphony?

5) Find one or two primary sources, such as diaries, artistic statements, interviews, photographs, films that can be woven into your poem or prose, either implicitly or explicitly. Consider using a quotation from one of these sources for an epigraph or as a concluding line. Consider arguing with the artist’s words directly, using the music as evidence against him or her.

6) Investigate the artistic movements/trends/techniques that your work uses and to which it responds. To what other artists was this composer paying close attention? With what contemporaries (or traditional masters) is this composer or performer conversing? What does he steal? What does she alter? How does the work represent a movement or school of art or music? Find the movement’s founding statements and consider them as part of your poem.

7) What kind of critical and/or popular reception has this work enjoyed? How has this reception changed over time? Where in this procession of responses is your own reaction? Is the work popular or obscure? Who knows about it and what uses do these audiences make of the song (for instance, in what weird commercial would you see or hear this piece)? Can you use some of the critical comments as language for your work? Can you make the audience/critics characters in your fiction or poem?

8) Consider the song as an object/artifact (think of the film “The Red Violin”). Who has owned the vinyl record or the sheet music? Where has it been sold? What near losses has it survived? How many times has the song been performed? What marks have those encounters left on the work? What changes have occurred in its uses (for instance, going from ritual use to concert performance)? How might the earliest performers of a tune think of its current use? How do you know?

9) When I learned that the sarabande was a dance, it changed my entire sense of Bach’s first Unaccompanied Suite for Cello, demonstrating the power of terms to affect what we hear. That sense changed even more when I realized it was a dance that had been banned for its suggestiveness. Investigate one or two of the musical terms that apply to your piece of music. What difference does it make to you to understand the structure of 12-bar blues or to know the difference between andante and allegro? How would you contrast the official definition of a musical device with your actual experience of the piece?

Writing the Song

Poetry offers a very strong way to give a verbal representation of sonic and rhythmic experience, emphasizing in language an embodied encounter with a piece of music. A range of formal choices can follow from your response to the piece. If you note repetitions, you might consider a formal poem that can offer its own sonic pattern of repetition (a pantoum, a villanelle, or a sestina, perhaps, or a use of anaphora or rhyme). You might offer alliteration, assonance of internal rhyme as ways of heightening the musical qualities of language. Or you might be attentive to metrical variations and caesuras.

In your fiction you might highlight the memorial functions of a song. Consider how various artists, styles or tunes offer good ways to invoke setting—era, culture, etc. Explore the ways various characters use music as a way or marking their lives, as a kind of unofficial soundtrack of experience. Or explore a ritualized experience for your characters and its connection to song (the way a hymn suggests home, or the function of lullaby as it passes from one generation to the next). How can you create entire scenes around a particular musical instance—teaching, learning, hearing a song? What social exchanges require music (think here of the role of dance in Jane Austen’s or Edith Wharton’s novels)?

Non-Fiction offers many ways to examine the effects of music on individuals and communities, as well as to examine the difficulties in communicating musical experience to others. Focus on a particular element of you own growth in musical awareness and try to describe how it happened. What did it take for you to collect all of the vinyl versions of a particular artist’s work, and why do you value them over others? Or what happened when you stopped practicing the piano, as your parents wanted, and then picked up the guitar or gave up music in favor of driving your car downtown looking for girls/guys? What did it mean when you formed or broke up with a band? How do you miss or embrace singing hymns or being part of a choice? Or what has music meant to you in especially difficult or joyous times, and how has that changed over the years?

*This is part two of an exercise I'm drafting for this course. Again, please post poems or send responses to this excursion. You'll note that, again, that this excursion opens itself to the possibility of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. For the Poetry, Poetics, and the Arts Class, only the poetry options will be open.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Ashbery--The Painter

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.

So there was never any paint on his canvas
Until the people who lived in the buildings
Put him to work: “Try using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter’s moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer.”

How could he explain to them his prayer
That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.

Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush
In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait
Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.”
The news spread like wildfire through the buildings:
He had gone back to the sea for his subject.

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush.
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.

They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

-- from Some Trees.

Musical Excursion--Part Two*

Option Two: Choose a recording of an unfamiliar piece of music, perhaps something utterly beyond your usual musical habits and tastes, or perhaps an obscure tune by your favorite singer, one you haven’t heard in years. As you listen to the music, what do you notice about the piece or about your physical/emotional reaction to it? Are you moved or bored? Do you feel critical or full of praise? What surprises you about the music? What seems predictable? When the piece finishes, what remains in your head—phrase, melody, feeling? Finally, probe each of your responses and see if you can connect a concrete image or physical sensation with each one. For instance, “When the djembe plays, the thud of the hand on the head of the drum resonates like a foot stomping on the floor ” or “Dylan’s voice made my teeth grind.”

During a second listen, notice what you missed the first time. How has your initial response changed or been confirmed? What new questions does the second encounter raise for you? What additional information, about the composer, about the uses of the music, or about its musical/formal qualities would you like to know?

Finally, if possible, find an additional recording of the song. How is this performance different from the one you heard initially? What aspects remain constant? Which do you enjoy more, and why? Which recording would you recommend to someone else?

Write a paragraph or poem that either a) contrasts or layers the experience of hearing the two recordings on top of one another; or b) describes your reactions to the newness or surprise of the piece and/or lays out the questions you’d like to answer for yourself after listening to this new music. Or develop a character sketch of the performer you have heard, or the composer of the piece, investigating the significance of this tune in his life.

*This is part two of an exercise I'm drafting for this course. Option three will appear tomorrow, with other aspects of the excursion to follow. Again, I'm interested in reading responses to this excursion. You'll note that, in this version, the excursion opens itself to the possibility of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. For the Poetry, Poetics, and the Arts Class, only the poetry options will be open.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Musical Excursion*

As I type this, music pours through my headphones, a Bach suite for unaccompanied cello, recorded by the great Pablo Casals in the middle of the last century. Hearing Casals play on my iPod, I can’t help but think of the time I heard this same piece played by Slovakian cellist Josef Luptak. While sitting on wooden pews in a stone chapel in an Austrian castle, as Josef reached the end of the sarabande, we saw mist settle on mountains just barely visible from the tiny arched window. And, almost as a miracle, in the silent space between movements, birds sang. Everyone was still. For a moment we inhabited together a sacred space made possible by Bach, by Luptak, by his listeners, by the setting, and, wonderfully, by some random, improvisatory birds. How I’ve wondered (for five years or more), do I write this? Should it be written?

While nearly everyone has some kind of powerful experience with music—hearing, performing, practicing,
dancing—we often have difficulty expressing music’s effects, its means of moving, comforting, or energizing us.
Descriptions often seem either cold and technical or florid and vague. In both deliberate and serendipitous ways, this
excursion encourages us to find in our musical encounters generative energy for poems, stories, and reflective prose,
to engage our bodies, memories, and intelligence in ways that might hint at the deep connections between language
and music, between story and memory as it appears in song.

Embodied Listening
Begin this excursion with one of these three exercises, each designed to generate a draft that can be focused or
expanded by responding to the questions below.

Option One: Choose a recording of a very familiar piece of music, one you’ve listened to, sung, or played countless
times. As you listen to the song, make a list of all the associations you have with the piece. When/how did it come
into your life? When do you catch yourself humming it? What do you think of the composer/performer? With whom
have you shared your appreciation for this song? What other songs/artists make music like this? Once you’ve made
your list, set it aside and listen to the song again.

This time try to forget your past associations with the music and attend instead to your body’s response to the
music. Do your muscles feel relaxed or tense? What happens to your breathing? Have you shut your eyes or left them
open? As the sound fills your head, how do you react? Does your heartbeat quicken or slow down? Do you dance, or
tap your toes, or play the drums with your pencil? As soon as the music ends, close your eyes and sit with these
physical sensations for a few moments (as long as you are able). When you open your eyes, what sensations remain?
Set your two lists side by side and listen a third time. What aspect of the music itself—tempo, lyrics, rhythm,
repetitions, variations, instrumentation, etc.—seems to connect the two lists you’ve made? What questions about the
performer or the composer arise for you? Not referring to your memorial associations or you own bodily experiences,
how would you describe this piece to someone who has never heard it? Would you put it in a genre? Would you
prescribe uses for it (perfect for a romantic evening, great to work out to, the best commuting tune, etc)?
Now, write three short poems (6-10 lines each), or three paragraphs (from a first person point of view), each
drawing from one of your lists. What theme, character, emotion, or experience begins to cohere from these three

*This is part one of an exercise I'm drafting for this course when I teach it again in the fall. Options two and three will come tomorrow, with other aspects of the excursion to follow. I'd be interested in reading responses to this excursion. You'll note that, in this version, the excursion opens itself to the possibility of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. For the Poetry, Poetics, and the Arts Class, only the poetry options will be open.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ekphrasis and Discovery

Leonard Barkan on ekphrasis in his Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture . Here's a little taste of his discussion, how ekphrasis follows discovery:

In the face of these new interrelations, Sangallo and the other onlookers respond in two ways: they draw and they talk. They create more works of art, and they conduct an impromptu seminar on the history of art. The words are a sign that art has a history that deserves to stand alongside the history of power or of nature, while the establishment of a past history of art directs the course of art's future history. The images are a sign that art can be made not only out of dogma, out of natural observation, or out of historical events, but also out of art itself. The words and images together produce aesthetics—which is to say a philosophy and a phenomenology proper to art itself. The unearthed object becomes the place of exchange not only between words and pictures but also between antiquity and modern times and between one artist and another.

A piece of marble is being rediscovered, but at the same time a fabric of texts about art is being restitched. Writings from later antiquity—Ovidian poetry, Roman novels, Greek romances, lyrics, and rhetorical exercises—turn out to be filled with passages, typically what are called ekphrases, in which narrative is framed not as reality but as the contents of an artist's picture. These passages stand in ambiguous relation to the actual objects emerging from the ground. Ekphrases are categorically different from the works of art they supposedly describe; indeed, the poetic description of an imaginary sculpted Laocoön would doubtless not resemble the statue in Rome any more than Virgil's narrative does. Yet this fabric of texts tantalizes readers with the possibility that, together with the rediscovered works themselves, it will reconstruct a complete visual antiquity. In addition, the ekphrastic literature brings with it a set of ways to look at the visual arts and a set of relations between aesthetic representation and language.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

11 Unqualified Provocations

I'm hopeful that someone will pick up this piece I originally wrote for The Pub, the unofficial magazine at Wheaton. It's tangentially related to the ekphrasis course in one way (I assigned the students last semester the task of writing a hymn/song).

Here's a portion:
We should be very careful what we put in other people's mouths. Because songs only exist when they enter and leave the bodies of others (either when they are sung or when they are heard), writers of hymns and leaders of singing need to be more careful than ever about the kind of textual relations we have within our bodies (see provocations three and four above). Too often we sing, over and over, lyrics that break under the weight of repetition. Precisely because music lodges in our senses, our memories of the texts with which music is joined will form some of our most powerful spiritual and theological experiences.

An Ekphrastic Index

Several people (ok, two) have asked for an index of the 30 Ekphrastics/30 Days posts. Here they are. The end of the term is upon me, so I'm rewarding each graded essay or exam with a few minutes of working on an essay about writing so many ekphrastic pieces in such a compressed space. I'll post that essay here when it's in somewhat better shape. Once grades are turned in, I'm headed off to be part of the staff for the New England Young Writers Conference at Breadloaf, something I've had the pleasure of doing for the past two years as well. It's always a great trip. --dw

An Ekphrastic Index

Day 1: April 90th
Day 2: Moby Dick
Day 3: Showing Raymond Carver a Photograph of My Father in His 31st Year
Day 4: Minor Resolution
Day 5: Fairy Tale
Day 6: Two Suppers at Emmaus
Day 7: Call me Bonham
Day 8: Meeting the Relatively Famous Songwriter/Pop Star
Day 9: Blake Paints What Milton Can't Show in a Play
Day 10: 1970s Arena Rock Love
Day 11: Mulready's Secret Sonnet
Day 12: Confession: The Prairie Queen
Day 13: Tim Coe, His Hat, and Touluse-Lautrec
Day 14: Ace
Day 15: Rachel's Plastic Chalice
Day 16: First of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 17: Second of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 18: Third of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 19: Fourth of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 20: Some Prayer
Day 21: Rejected Lyric for a New Setting of the 23rd Psalm
Day 22: One of several hymn riffs
Day 23: I swear I use no art at all
Day 24: Four Forms for Addressing the Tired Eye
Day 25: Birthday Poem
Day 26: Flailing Away
Day 27: After David Hooker
Day 28: Pantoum and Variation on What Wondrous Love
Day 29: A little less sad
Day 30: Abstracts of Additional Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Emily Dickinson--an anti-ekphrastic?

I would not paint -- a picture --
I'd rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell -- delicious -- on --
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare -- celestial -- stir --
Evokes so sweet a Torment --
Such sumptuous -- Despair --

I would not talk, like Cornets --
I'd rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings --
And out, and easy on --
Through Villages of Ether --
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal --
The pier to my Pontoon --

Nor would I be a Poet --
It's finer -- own the Ear --
Enamored -- impotent -- content --
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

--Emily Dickinson

And one of my favorite essays on Dickinson

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Day 30--Abstracts of Additional Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead

Augusta Savage leaves her Art in the skilled hands of Harlem’s young because the Body is a Harp, No Matter who Plows it under and tries to forget

Thomas Cole on The Course of Empire and the Eventual Superiority of Nesting Birds

Edward Kemeys discourses on wild beasts who lurk in public places for public purposes such as assisting humans in offering perpeptual prayers for rain

Carl Milles defends the scale of his bronze gods, particularly Poseidon’s privates, while standing beneath the Sun Singer in Allerton Park.

As a brass band marches by, Charles Ives sings his favorite hymn and sells me life insurance, though he has been long dead.

The dead lead singers from several mediocre bands denounce Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain but sing the praises of Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday, and, oddly, Elvis. They do this in harmonies worthy of a Bach chorale.

Hannah Cohoon sees heaven again with its rounded fruits, its blazing leaves of vision, and offers it to me as a token, but I am too busy humming “Simple Gifts” to hear her


Rembrandt challenges Thomas Kinkade to a cage match in the Mall of America over fair use of the phrase Painter of Light®