Writing the Visual

The Ekphrastic Encounter in Contemporary British Poetry and Elsewhere
David Kennedy (188pp, 55.00, Ashgate)

One of the strongest creative impulses for an artist from any discipline is to take an idea from one medium and then push it into another. There is a unique opportunity to explore what happens in the transformation.

Michel Foucault's declaration 'what we see never resides in what we say' acts as a typical warning post about the relation of verbal or written language to painting, for 'neither can be reduced to the other's terms'. However, poets see something of themselves in other artists; many feel obliged to reflect upon and react to works of visual art.  As an ancient literary form that stubbornly refuses to die, Ekphrasis continues to appear spontaneously in the work of contemporary poets who employ a variety of strategies, not necessarily to reproduce or recreate, so much as to evoke a particular art object. The relatively new phenomenon of the ekphrastic collection is on the increase: in the last few years Ernest Farres (on Edward Hopper), Charles Simic (on Joseph Cornell), Pascale Petit (on Frida Kahlo) and Barry Hill (on Lucian Freud) are among those publishing in the UK an entire volume based on a single artist.

The critical recognition of ekphrasis in ancient poetics starts with Homer where the shield of Achilles in the 18th book of The Iliad
is an imagined object containing elements of movement and sound. Created by Hephaestus to include the Earth, the Heavens and the Sea, it becomes a miracle of design application when you consider the cinematic flow of images forged across its surface and embossed around its edges. In the original Greek context it was of little consequence if the shield was actual or not, the purpose was to make the listener envision the art object as if it was physically present before them by its appeal to the imagination. Masterworks that have followed in developing the tradition illustrate what might simultaneously be lost and gained in the translation of an artwork: these would have to include both Keats with his urn and Shelley with his fallen statue, right through to specific poems in the twentieth century from Stevens, Moore, Auden, Williams, O'Hara and Ashbery. Perhaps it is Shelley's appalled yet enraptured response to Leonardo's Medusa, 'it is less the horror than the grace / Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone' that best catches the compulsive yet unsettling attraction for the ekphrastic poet.

The Ekphrastic Encounter in Contemporary British Poetry and Elsewhere
is an impressive, thought provoking book that presents several related arguments about poetics in stylish and readable prose. What emerges from David Kennedy's informed and insightful analysis is a desire to reclaim ekphrasis from being seen as just another obscure literary subgenre. Rather than a set of texts that share indicators of theme and narrative content, he sees ekphrasis as a practice that connects with its origins: a liberating poetic means for the vividness and immediacy of language. Discussing the impossibility of treating ekphrasis as mere representation, Kennedy describes the classical idea of 'an account of a thing and the experience of it' and both its 'tangible and intangible qualities'. As a rhetorical device, these are powerful images 'designed to play on an audience's emotions and so make listeners more receptive to an analytical or narrative account', while more importantly 'ekphrasis is clearly allied with energeia, which is variously defined as vigour, activity and purposeful movement'.

Ekphrasis then, in its purest and most original sense has the potential to encourage a poetry that is linguistically challenging and reflexive; to offer something more than a simple representational or counter-representational response to an art object.  Split into five parts - 'The Ekphrastic Encounter', 'The Contemporary British Ekphrastic Poem', 'Ekphrasis and the Female', 'Beyond Painting' and 'Ekphrasis and Creative Writing' - Kennedy astutely surveys and compares material from both the mainstream and avant-garde poetic traditions.

Kennedy willingly declares his admiration for poetry concerned with the process of perception, of putting ambiguous propositions into language. John Ash's poem 'The Anatolikon' is used to introduce the complexities of ekphrasis that occur once the writer decides to abandon simple modes of description and adopt 'the idea that a deeper meaning is "concealed" in an image', in other words, to search for the subject underneath the subject. Kennedy's rationale is perfectly embodied not only in Ashs's poem but also, to a greater or lesser extent, in all the poems included in the book for discussion: a shared understanding between certain poets and visual artists that everything is abstract, an agreement that all acts of representation are flawed, that the pictorial is always an illusion. To emphasize the point most appropriately he quotes Jean-Francois Lyotard about how in any abstract artform 'the unpresentable exists' and operates 'to make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen or made visible'.

For Kennedy, looking at art 'involves constant shifts and realignments'. He therefore looks towards a range of poets (including Andrew Crozier, Roy Fisher, Peter Hughes, Kelvin Corcoran, Peter Redgrove, Frances Presley, Pauline Stainer and Philip Gross) whose emphasis on the visual for inspiration attempts to harness a response within sites where meaning is continually in play and unfixed, for as Kennedy explains, 'the image is only ever temporarily at rest' within their act of writing.

Most theoretical studies draw upon the idea that images and texts are caught in a paragonal struggle where each has to fight for dominance over the other.  Kennedy's 'ekphrastic encounter' wants to avoid this pointless mismatch although he suitably examines how in much of the theory (Heffernan, Mitchell, Krieger, et al) image and text are forced into binary opposition: silent or speaking; still or moving; spatial or temporal, etc. Throughout his analysis Kennedy reveals how ekphrasis has the potential to bypass the anxieties of such rivalry; that combined provocation and inhibition in front of an artwork, 'untouchable in its apparently perfected form', will get us nowhere. The poets discussed here show that ekphrasis can be about looking simultaneously at both an object and a process.

In a chapter titled 'Varieties of Ekphrasis: Framing Histories, Framed Narratives', Kennedy lucidly connects Fisher, Hughes and Corcoran as writers moving between past and present, whose poems seem 'continually unsettled by the twin demands of the desire for narrative and the desire for the work of art to remain as a site of formation'. He quotes Corcoran's assertion in his wonderful sequence of poems Roger Hilton's Sugar
that 'Nothing can replace the long, steady gaze, / face to face with the picture' to show how ekphrasis works to provide a more explorative approach to historical (and art historical) narrative as well as providing, in Kennedy's words, 'a way of rewriting or even unwriting the expected poetic self'.

In two later chapters that form part four, he deftly synthesizes some scholarly work on female/feminist ekphrasis that awakens the reader to both radical and more subtle gendered subjectivities in both pre and post twentieth century poems. Most importantly, he notes how 'images of echo and reverberation as links between inner state and outer reality' are vital to both male and female responses that focus on language, process and consciousness itself. Poems by Presley and Stainer in particular, are employed as fascinating examples of this in a contemporary context, where as well as gender difference, inner and outer energies are at play to 'imply a relation between the "inner life" of a work and the life that breathes and pulses in the spectator'.

Surprisingly, despite including Krzysztof Ziarek's notion of a work of art as the interplay of forces where there is always 'a dynamic occurrence', there is no mention of the influence of Charles Olson or the significant convergence of 'Projective Verse' with Abstract Expressionism at Black Mountain.  There is only a paragraph on Robert Creeley who like Olson, understood the move in abstract painting towards the non-pictorial and the implication of this for poetry.  Perhaps this explains Kennedy's limited attention on Lee Harwood and his omission of John James altogether, both of who might be seen as crucial to the British context.

However, the inspirational touch of John Ashbery is everywhere, and his poem 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' is a constant presence throughout the book.  Kennedy is fascinated by Ashbery's use of ekphrasis to create motion through reflection and distortion in his response to Parmigianino's curved mirror self-portrait, how the painting within the poem 'produces reminder after reminder of time's and life's "breathless speeds"'. In an impressive and engaging reassessment of the poem, Kennedy quotes Richard Stamelman who sees Ashbery's object of attention as 'perpetually in movement, swerving in and out of the poet's consciousness'.

Drawing on his experience as a poet and an academic, Kennedy brings a practitioner's precision and care to ekphrastic criticism. Writing against the tendency in British literary enquiry to focus only on ekphrastic texts that are more conservatively mainstream and pre-modernist, he brings his intelligence to bear on some much less familiar material. His discussion demonstrates how modernist/post modernist models continue to provide inspiration for many experimental poets. Ultimately, he suggests that Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' is perhaps more influential on British poets responding to visual art than the traditional examples of Homer's shield or Keats's urn.

As the title suggests, The Ekphrastic Encounter
is a story of urgent yet rejuvenating meetings between poets and visual artists. This perceptive and cogent appraisal is a distinguished addition to the literature of ekphrasis. It will contribute greatly to our awareness, understanding and appreciation of how poets continue to breathe contemporary life into this most ancient of traditions.
                Peter Gillies  2012