Friday, June 27, 2008

The longer tradition

from Viz: Rhetoric-Visual Culture-Pedagogy

One conversation about the relationship between the visual and the textual concerns ekphrasis, commonly defined as the poetic description of a work of art. Regretfully, this popular definition of the term disregards the long and rich rhetorical tradition of ekphrasis, which has been understood as the rhetorically charged description of anything that can be perceived visually or evoked mentally.

Although there are plenty of examples of ekphrasis in classical literature, the earliest extant instructions on how to compose one and what its functions are appear in the Hellenistic composition handbooks known as progymnasmata . . . . These handbooks were designed to train young people in public speaking, and they taught that an ekphrasis was not meant to be composed for its own sake, but it should rather be a part of a longer oration. In this context, the ekphrasis served to evoke a vivid picture in the mind of the audience so as to sway its members’ emotions and prepare them for the subsequent analytical and/or narrative exposition of the issue at hand. An ekphrasis could be composed in any style; it could be used as an introduction (proemium), substituted in the place of a narrative, or inserted as a pointed digression. When inscribed around an image, such as an icon, the ekphrasis functioned to provide commentary and/or guide the viewer’s interpretation of the patron’s intent. Occasionally—and this is especially true for the late antique and Byzantine period—an entire oration could be comprised of an ekphrasis, which functioned allegorically to illustrate either vice or virtue, creation or destruction, wisdom or folly, temperance or intemperance—but always with a rhetorical goal, embedded in a specific historical context.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

students from last time

Two student writers from last fall's version of this class are included in the current issue of Stonework, a journal from Houghton College. Steve Slagg's Why I am not a Theologian and Rachel Alsdorf's In the Byzantine Chapel Fresco Museum show the variety, craft, and intelligence of the young poets from that class. Congratulations, Steve and Rachel.


P. S. Check out colleague Brett Foster's three pieces as well (one link seems to be broken).

Monday, June 23, 2008

American Gothic, Redux

From a long time ago, an ekphrastic that is mostly description, not what I try to do or teach these days. Can't decide whether or not to put it in the new book, but I still like the last several lines, esp. the internal rhyme with edge and head.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Are you sure he was funny?

Your assignment:

Write the catalogue copy for the exhibit/auction before this was thought to be a Rembrandt and after it was authenticated. Go.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Two Violins--A. E. Stallings

An A. E. Stallings poem from the June issue of Poetry. I like the penultimate stanza:

One was fire red,
Hand carved and new—
The local maker pried the wood
From a torn-down church's pew,

The Devil's instrument
Wrenched from the house of God.
It answered merrily and clear
Though my fingering was flawed;

Bright and sharp as a young wine,
They said, but it would mellow,
And that I would grow into it.
The other one was yellow

And nicked down at the chin,
A varnish of Baltic amber,
A one-piece back of tiger maple
And a low, dark timbre.

A century old, they said,
Its sound will never change.
Rich and deep on G and D,
Thin on the upper range,

And how it came from the Old World
Was anybody's guess—
Light as an exile's suitcase,
A belly of emptiness:

That was the one I chose
(Not the one of flame)
And teachers would turn in their practiced hands
To see whence the sad notes came.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Taking My Cousin's Photo at the Statue of Liberty--Richard Blanco

May she never miss the sun or the rain in the valley
trickling from the palm trees, or the plush red earth,
or the flutter of sugarcane fields and flamboyant, or
the endless hem of turquoise sea around the island,
may she never remember the sea or her life again
in Cuba selling glossy postcards of the revolution
and T-shirts of Che Guevara to sweating Canadians
at the Hotel More gift shop, may she never forget
the broken toilet and peeling stucco of her room
in a government partitioned mansion dissolving
like a sand castle back into the bay of Cienfuegos,
may she never have to count the dollars we'd send
for her wedding dress, or save egg rations for a cake,
may she fall in love with America like I once did,
with its rosy-cheeked men in breeches and white wigs
with the calligraphy of our Liberty and Justice for All,
our We The People, may she memorize all fifty states,
our rivers and mountains, sing God Bless America
like she means it, like she's never lived anywhere
else but here, may she admire our wars and our men
on the moon, may she believe our infomercials, buy
designer perfumes and underwear, drink Starbucks,
drive a V-8 SUV, and have a dream, may she never
doubt America as I have, may this be her country
as I still want it to be for me when she lifts her Coke
into the June sky and clutches her faux Chanel purse
to her chest, may she look into New York Harbor
for the rest of her life and hold still when I say, Smile.

--Richard Blanco

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Focus on the dogs, cats, and pet birds

An excerpt from poet Alfred Corn’s Notes on Ekphrasis, a solid overview of the practice:

Actually, a poem about an obscure painting is also at a disadvantage. Where the original image is well known, we can compare it to the poet's version of what it contains; and the poet's departures from the original, or inaccurate interpretations of it, are sometimes revealing. Without the original image, though, we are forced to trust the poet's description as being accurate, and we are unable to know where it is not. Meanwhile, the compositional task is much more difficult in such cases since the text of the poem has to convey all the relevant visual information, while still qualifying as poetry. On the other hand, if the subject is, say, Leonardo's Mona Lisa, or any other very famous work of art, there's no need to give a detailed description; the audience already knows what's in the painting.

A disadvantage, though, of using very great works of visual art as a subject for ekphrasis is that the comparison between the original and the poem about it may prove too unfavorable. Readers may wonder why they should bother reading a moderately effective poem when they could instead look at the great painting it was based on. If the poem doesn't contain something more than was already available to the audience, it will strike the reader as superfluous, the secondary product of someone too dependent on the earlier, greater work.

The reader may also wonder why the description wasn't done in prose rather than in lines of poetry. All art historians and critics agree that complete and accurate verbal descriptions of visual art are very hard to achieve, even in prose. When the expectations associated with good poetry are part of the goal as well, we see that writing a good ekphrastic poem is a formidable task indeed. The aim of drafting a text entirely adequate to its source, giving a verbal equivalent to every detail in the subject work, is probably too lofty. A more realistic goal is to give a partial account of the work.
Once the ambition of producing a complete and accurate description is put aside, a poem can provide new aspects for a work of visual art. It can provide a special angle of approach not usually brought to bear on the original. For example, in a banqueting scene, the poem might, instead of describing the revelers, focus on the dogs, cats, and pet birds given free rein in the scene.

Monday, June 2, 2008

If you're looking for interpretive/historical context

You can do no better than my colleague Dr. John Walford and his textbook Great Themes in Art. Not only does he include first rate historical, artistic, and thematic context, but John also has some great passages of ekphrastic prose, describing and engaging art across the ages.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Archaic Torso of Apollo--Rainer Maria Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell