Tag Archives: ekphrasis

Word Frequencies in Ekphrasis

Perhaps one of the longest held beliefs about ekphrastic poetry is that it is preoccupied with the stillness of the image. This bifurcation between frozen, silent images in visual art and active, speaking subjects in poetry has been the axel upon which most of our critical attention to the genre has turned. But what if we could show that stillness was “not” the most central concept to ekphrastic verse? What if, perhaps, it was some other trope that we have overlooked because we as readers are captivated by that alluring binary? This is one line of questioning that I have been pursuing in my own research, and I’m going about asking this question in very different ways: using the “close reading” of conventional literary study and the more “distant” reading of computational text analysis. The text analysis has been slow, because unlike many other kinds of data analysis projects, I do not have huge datasets to work with. If you work in the digital humanities, one of the underlying conversations has been about how much natural language data we have. From Google’ Books’ digitized corpus to the Hathi Trust to LION, there are thousands of texts available… but not if you’re working on 20th century poetry. Here’s where things get much murkier. Large corpuses of 20th century poetry are protected under copyright law. So, regardless of the fact that I have no desire to republish the texts in whole (or even in substantial part) the largest drag on my research is that a single dissertating student has almost no resources to generate the substantively-sized data sets that someone would need in order to really study ekphrasis in a more reliably comprehensive way.

And yet, that’s exactly what I want to do.

As a first step, I have taken time to digitize (only for data purposes) one of the canonical anthologies of ekphrastic verse: The Gazer’s Spirit edited by John Hollander. Hollander’s text provides a history and taxonomy of ekphrasis, which has created the foundation for most scholarly work on the subject since the 1980s. In his introduction, Hollander defines ekphrasis as poems to, for, and about the visual arts. He traces its history from the earliest records of Greek rhetoric through its first widely-recognized use in Homer’s Illiad to its various iterations: conversations with artists, gallery walks, notional (about imaginary works of art), actual (about works of art we can still see), unassessable (poems about works of art that no longer exist), architectural ekphrasis, photographic ekphrasis, etc. Hollander’s book provided readers with insights into the tropes, agendas, and dilemmas and accompanied that introduction with what he called a “gallery” of ekphrastic poems to, for, and about actual works of visual art. It is considered, therefore, and ekphrastic primer.

Hollander’s collection, then, seemed like a reasonable place to start with text analysis. The gallery features 48 poems accompanied by either black and white or full color pictures of the works of art each poem addresses. Hollander follows each poem up with explication and analysis, and occasionally with additional poems that might help to shed historical light on the main poem for that entry. I have only reproduced the “gallery” poems, and not those Hollander refers to in part or full.

My question, then, going into this small experiment in text analysis has been this: Can we tell through simple text analysis such as word frequency, phrase frequency, and word proximity if Hollander’s claims about the usual tropes of ekphrasis are true? This is, obviously, a flawed question, because text analysis tools are not able to read or to understand figurative language, which is the means and the material of ekphastic verse; however, Hollander makes claims that have shaped the scope of scholarly research about ekphrasis since the 1980s, and those claims depend much of the time on the repetition of phrases and words.

Several freely available tools exist for creating text frequency visualizations. These are called word cloud or text cloud generators. The tools are primarily useful for aesthetic purposes; however, their is a usefulness to their impressionism. As pictures of relative prominence, these images can help to shift our sense of what some of the most common topics, phrases, and words are in data set. The first tool I’ve used is derived from Jonathan Feinberg’s wordle.net. More information about the tool, now housed on IBM’s Many Eyes site can be found here.

Ekphrasis Word Cloud

A Method to the Model: Responding to Franco Moretti’s Network Theory, Plot Analysis

My response, “A Method to the Model: Responding to Franco Moretti’s Network Theory, Plot Analysis” has been published at the Magazine Modernisms blog. My response along with James Stephen Murphy’s and Matt Huculak’s set the stage for our upcoming roundtable “Social Network Analysis and the Databases of Modernism” at MSA13.

Conventions of Ekphrasis

**This is a post from a much earlier blog from many years ago.  It is from http://calamity.wordherders.net/archives/000422.html 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.