Conventions of Ekphrasis

**This is a post from a much earlier blog from many years ago.  It is from and has enjoyed a high ranking in web searches for the term “ekphrasis.”

There are conventions with ekphrasis, as with other poetic modes. Over the past two years or so, I’ve put together a list of conventions that usually appear in an ekphrastic work. Not all of them are present at once. In fact, quite frequently only one or two are present at any given time; historically, however, these are the appeals, patterns, and/or traditions that an ekphrastic work usually adopts. Predominantly, these conventions come from either my or someone else’s research on male ekphrasis. Many of these would also be found in a woman’s ekphrastic work. Still, I believe that there are particular anxieties, considerations… even sympathies that underlie ekphrastic poems by women that further enrich this list of conventions. I’ll probably make a stab at what I think some of those things are early on, but I hope over the course of the next month or so that the poems that I’ll be introducing here will prove these female conventions to exist in more than just my head.

Speaking out
Frequently the poet will use the poem as a means of creating a voice for it, quite literally giving a voice to the mute art object. The artwork (usually painting or sculpture) speaks to the artist or the poem will speak to the mute visual artifact. The poet may implore the painting/sculpture to speak or to justify the artist or poet’s work. Usually this voice becomes deeply entwined with two other conventions by either praising the artist for (frequently his) mastery over nature or ability to manipulate his medium. The technical term for giving a voice to the mute art object (or mute object at all) is prosopopeia. According to Jean Hagstrum, the iconic (the word he uses to describe what we are calling ekphrastic) poem asks that art become the mediating force between the real and the divine.

Closely linked to the previous convention, an ekphrastic poet/persona frequently praises the mastery of the visual artist and his work. It celebrates the artist’s mimetic powers, while frequently, simultaneously critiquing it for its lack of mutability.

Paragone Competition
A term initially introduced by Leonardo da Vinci as a way of describing the complex and competitive relationship between words and images, the paragone battle feeds off of the previously mentioned convention. While on one hand the poet/persona may be flattering the artist and his/her work, there is also an implicit critique of the material, its stasis, and its immutability. By alerting the reader to these inherent flaws, the poet may seek to establish superiority of words over the painter/sculptor and his material limitations. The poet may suggest that he has:
1. more immediate access to the real
2. more immediate access to the divine
3. that one art has a more direct relationship with Truth
4. that one exists in either time or space and therefore is more accurately representative through the accuracy of its resemblance
5. that one art requires more education, learning and talent or that it is less crude and more chaste.
W. J. T. Mitchell focuses a great deal of attention on this paragone struggle, attempting to map its relations between speaker-poet-reader and creating “stages” to describe the kind of relationship that exists between the two arts ranging from indifference to hope to fear.

Emotional response
The poet is usually drawn to the artwork through a deeply moving visual experience that triggers a latent or unresolved emotional vulnerability. The artwork is described as “transfixing” the poet. As a result, the poet suffers from speechlessness (exactly the kind of threat that begins the paragone contest, or the ekphrastic fear as Mitchell describes it) because of the extreme beauty of the work of art. Sometimes that “beauty” is defined by the artwork’s ability to “trick” the poet into believing that the work is “real.” In other words, the painting/sculpture is so precise that it is difficult to discern the real from its representation. The ultimate compliment that the poet can pay to the painting is that it “breathes” life while the poet remains “breathless” before it. But breathlessness is never beneficial for a poet. To steal the poet’s voice is to steal his purpose, and so a flaw is frequently discovered shortly afterwards thereby releasing the poet from this “transfixing” gaze.

Stasis of the art object
Again, this frequently appears hand-in-hand with praise, but occasionally it does not. The poet will point out the stasis of the art object (eg. Thou still unravished bride of quietness…). The poet will deliberately point to the inherent shortcomings of the medium to produce an effect over time (much akin to a kind of Lessing / Simonides critique… that painting is mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture). Later examples of ekphrasis, however, will also use this opportunity to point out the inherent limits of language as well, the difficulty of representation in linguistic form.

Sometimes used interchangeably, ekphrasis usually includes, but is not limited to, the use of enargia. The term comes from classical rhetoric. It means to make the object lively appear before the reader’s eye. This usually happens through careful recreation of the visual artifact through verbal means, such as detailed description, use of sensory information, imagery, etc… In other words, so ekphrasis will also attempt to visually reproduce the art object for the reader so that the reader can experience the same arresting effect as the poet. This, of course, works to varying degrees of success. Some refer to this as “painterly” poetry, and this is precisely the kind of work that lies at the heart of Lessing’s treatise. Lessing saw it as poetry’s attempt to mimic the visual arts.

Halting narrative progress
Some critics (yep… I can’t remember who… I know they’re out there… so time to go hunting for names again) argue that ekphrasis serves the purpose of confounding narrative progression in a longer (typically epic) work.

Actions of the painter
Sometimes the ekphrastic poem will linger on the actions of the visual artist concentrating on the act of creation and often paralleling the act of artistic creation with divine creation.

Artist’s studio
Frequently, an ekphrastic poem will make reference or be wholly concentrated upon the artist’s studio. This, as I’ve been compiling ekphrastic poems by women, is also a popular convention for them.

Museum ekphrasis
There is also the ekphrastic poem in which the poet is wandering through the museum looking at various pieces and each begins to bleed into the poet’s poem/thoughts.

Notional ekphrasis
Again, this convention is one that usually includes many of the other conventions that I’ve already suggested and probably doesn’t even belong here, but I’ll put it here for now. Poets will also create an imagined visual artifact and write a poem on that. Such is the case with Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The unique possibility that this allows the poet is complete and utter control over the painting or sculpture. The art object relies completely on the poet’s imagination for its existence.

This last one, again, I’m uncertain as to whether or not it belongs in this category, but I’ll put it here for now. The usefulness of ekphrasis is that it can also assure the permanence of a physical, visual artifact through language. For example, though the artwork may be lost, damaged, or destroyed, the poem somehow allows for the permanency of that art object. It is as if to say that even if the art object is destroyed, it’s memory exists in language that can be transmitted over time and through which the object is preserved.

Conventions that I’ve already begun to recognize within the ekphrastic poems by women that I’ve collected so far include:

Critique of Courtly Love
As I’m reading Rebeka Smick’s article entitled “Evoking Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta: Transformations in the Topos of Living Stone” in the collection of essays The Eye of the Poet the Renaissance ekphrastic form parallels the development of the courtly love poem (frequently the sonnet sequence). Interestingly enough, the courtly love sequence of a) unresponsiveness to the poet’s advances on the part of the lady (a part of the sequence frequently turned visual by painters and engravers); b) entranced by her loveliness, the smitten poet would then beg for his lady’s mercy while lingering at the edge of death (what I read to be the kind of “breathlessness” convention that I mention earlier) until c) the poet’s tormented spirit departs his broken body and he dies from the misery of unrequited love. It is only at the point of the poet’s death, however, that the lady pays any attention to the poet and her attention takes the form of pity (pieta). In any case, the use of the Pieta appears in several 20th century female poets’ work, including a poem by that title in Gluck’s collection Decending Figure. The critique, though, appears through either a critique of the desire itself or a critique through the feminized art object’s pity of the viewer. Other forms, I’m sure, exist… I just haven’t found them yet.

Punning off of terms such as “old master,” women play games with the concept of mastery of art and mastery of the female body as “model” for (most) painting, sculpture, etc.

Frequently the female poet will attempt to demonstrate a kind of sympathy for the position of the object.

The mute, perfect, still figure that is the painting or statue also causes the living, breathing female poet distress because of her inability to compete (and I would guess, though this is unsubstantiated, her resentment of the need to compete). There is a competition for the artist’s desire that occurs between the artwork (a creation of the poet’s and therefore a kind of self-love) and the model (who actually lives, breathes, and one presumes, speaks).

I’ve run across a number of response poems as well. In other words, there are responses to popular ekphrastic works such as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” So far, I feel that most of these poems treat the poet as though engaging in the courtly love ritual and responds on behalf of the artwork, but I really need to do more research in this area to say for sure.

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