Monday, November 1, 2010

Discussion One on Musical Ekphrasis

For the graduate school essay I mention below, I am posting a series of classroom discussions on various ways poets respond to music. Here's the first day's discussion.

“Writing about music,” says Elvis Costello (or Steve Martin, Thelonius Monk, Laurie Anderson, Martin Mull, Frank Zappa, etc.) “is like dancing about architecture. It’s a stupid thing to want to do.” This hasn’t stopped me (or most of the poets I regularly read) from writing dozens of poems about music—music as source of inspiration, font of memory, ideal of form, or subject of artistic envy. Then again, I am also someone who was once spotted dancing on a hill near a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in southwestern Wisconsin)

My essay explores the dynamics of “musical ekphrasis.” If you want a formal preview, you can read the abstract, or you can refer to the “map” of the essay above.

Here, though, is some material for us to discuss on how poets write in response to music and musical experience.

First a few caveats, definitions, and misdirections:

1) What I am NOT writing about—the shared lineage of music and poetry (I too believe that all the ancient poets were bards who sang their epics and their lyrics on honeyed tongues to the listening masses—but that’s not what I am studying—and besides that hasn’t been the case for say, oh, about a thousand years). Also, I’m not writing about whether or not lyrics (popular or otherwise) qualify as poetry (a subject on which I have many strong, well-informed opinions, none of which matter in this essay—short answer, “usually not”). Also, though I am interested in the notion, I am not writing about how musicians respond to works of visual art (which is what this scholar has done).

2) In his Museum of Words, James A. W. Heffernan defines ekphrasis as "the literary representation of visual representation” (3), a “literary mode that turns on the antagonism between . . . verbal and visual representation” (7). John Hollander defines ekphrasis as writing that gives voice to an otherwise mute canvas or stone: “painting is mute poetry and poetry speaking picture” (Hollander 6). Whatever the case, For my purposes, I am interested in ekphrastic poems that respond to and represent the experience of a work of art, using poetry’s particular tools to explore the effect of a viewer’s encounter with visual art.

3) Though ekphrasis has its origins in ancient Greek rhetoric, I’m talking here primarily about the poetic tradition that picked up steam in the early 19th century with work by the Romantics who frequently depicted encounters with visual art as nearly sacramental (in ways often replacing more formal religious encounters and challenged only by direct encounters with nature). Of course the great example of this is John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn." And then there are countless 20th century examples of ekphrasis, the modernists Stevens, Williams, Stein, Auden and since.

4) Of course you can read Keats’ “Ode” as not only an essential/founding example of ekphrasis but also as an emblematic poem of musical ekphrasis—the relationship between silence, music, imagination, and poetry. Melodies, pipes, timbrels, song occupy nearly as much space in the poem as anything else. And so I want to make a case that musical ekphrasis can be seen as an equally important category of poetry, especially in modern and contemporary poetry.

5) In truth, though, I don’t really want to “make a case” for anything (that’s why I gave up on my dissertation and turned to making my own poems instead). I would rather explore HOW poets respond poetically to music and suggest how this has been valuable to my own reading, writing and teaching of poetry and how it might prove valuable and generative to the work of other writers and readers. I’m also interested in this with visual ekphrasis, which explains why I have taught courses in both subjects and used to keep an ongoing blog on the subject. Plus, Lauren Rusk already wrote a very strong piece for the AWP Chronicle a few years back on “The Perils and Possibilities of Writing about Visual Art.” At the end of the week, I will put up a prompt, some suggestions, and some warnings for writing musical ekphrasis, stuff I hope you all might find generative of new work.


The contemporary practice (1920s through yesterday) of musical ekphrasis takes on a thousand varieties of form and approaches, but at the core I am interested in those poems that struggle to improvise a space that is itself an experience (in and through language) of a felt knowledge, a resonant intimacy, and an embodied/shared sonic experience generated primarily by an encounter with music.

I see modern/contemporary poets responding to music in these four or five ways:

1) memorial/commemorative (music as invocation of particular individual experiences)

2) contextual icon (poems exploring music as cultural/biographical/historical means into a composer’s life, an era, etc.)

3) mimetic/echoing (poems that imitate and seek the physical/sonic/emotional effects of music)

4) music as figure/god/form (poems that identify music as an idealized form of making art/meaning or as a version of mystery/power beyond language)

5) the riff (poetry that improvises and dialogues with music, drawing together many or most of the notions above in a single place)

So each day this week, I am going to put forward a poem or two that stand inside one of these categories and ask for your response.

Memorial/Commemorative Musical Ekphrasis

Here are a number of poems that attempt to give “an account of an unforgettable moment” that is tied directly to music, to show “how music has shown us to ourselves more accurately, and given us as well the eerie means to understand transcendence—to step back out of our lives and look back at them” (McClatchy xv).

If you would, pick one of the poems and discuss how it marries/connects music with memory.

How does the poem celebrate, lament, question, reject the musical experience?

And what craft choices does the writer use to represent the music itself?

Which piece of music in your experience immediately evokes powerful memories for you? Have you written about this piece?

Or, alternately, do you have a suggestion of a poem that connects music and memory? I’d love to see it.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven

Frank O'Hara "The Day Lady Died" (Here is Billie Holiday singing "God Bless the Child")

Linda Pastan, “Practicing

Dorianne Laux, "The Ebony Chickering"

Denis Johnson, “Heat

Wendell Berry, “A Music

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Hugging the Jukebox

Kevin Stein, “First Performance of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Band Puce Exit

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