There is a kind of poem that never gets beyond describing the thing it’s about. More often than not, the description takes you further away from the thing—to the point of obfuscation or banality—and all without showing you a good time in the process. Nothing sticks in the mind after reading, no transformation has come about; instead you are left with kind of resentment towards the poem. Is it even a poem, or just a paragraph of description with line breaks? (And even, sometimes, with no line breaks.)
A major poetic tradition drums under the surface here, clamant to respond. Deriving from the Greek ek (out) and phrasis (speak), ekphrasis is a rhetorical form of writing, typically describing visual images or objects. It has endured as a poetic mode and been remade over time, from classical accounts by Horace and Virgil to the Romantic encomia of Shelley and Keats. The ‘speaking out’ of ekphrasis materialises as giving voice to the mute object or image that cannot speak for itself. What would the artwork say, if it could talk? Or what would we say to it?
This confusion of speaking out as speaking for or over has led some to question the gendered dynamic inherent in the ekphrastic mode: that the object is mute, female, passive, and needs to be ‘animated’ by the vocal, male, word or logos . cf. W. J. T. Mitchell discussed in Lawrence Venuti (2010) ‘Ekphrasis, Translation, Critique’ Art in Translation, Volume 2, Issue 2, 131-152 Such a reduction verges on the simplistic, but what it does disclose is a network of power relations, between the artwork, the words it gives rise to, and the contexts that sustain them both.
If the ekphrastic poem’s relation to the artwork is not hermeneutic—seeking some inner truth or essence otherwise hidden—it is free to disavow the artwork as a discrete, hermetically sealed thing. Like criticism, it can draw on context and biography to add to interpretation; but unlike criticism, it can more easily shrug off the mantle of objectivity. Where criticism would weigh and value, ekphrasis can flirt and spurn.
Conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s understanding of art as catalysis is useful here. In some of her earliest writing, she describes the artwork a ‘catalytic agent’ that ‘promotes change in another entity (the viewer) without undergoing any permanent change itself.’ Adrian Piper (1970) ‘Art as Catalysis’ in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Selected Writings in Meta-Art Volume I 1968-1992 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press) 32 What has been historicised as the ‘dematerialisation of art’ in the twentieth century testifies to this synergy: when the objects are gone, the aura remains intact. Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler (1967) ‘The Dematerialization of Art’ in Art International, 12:2 (February 1968) 31-36
Something similar happens within ekphrasis: the poem or text is mutable, adaptable to change, while the artwork remains fixed. The poem doesn’t destabilise the integrity of the artwork; the flirting is decidedly one way. Or is it? Another translation of ekphrasis is to ‘call out’ or ‘call something by name’. Ekphrasis becomes an act of naming, of ‘calling out’, with all the political overtones that phrase now carries.
In her well-known series ‘My Calling (Cards)’ (1986-1990), Piper enacted acerbic resistance to what we would now term microagressions—normalised acts of racism and sexism. Piper’s notes for the performance describe a situation—a dinner or cocktail party—spent in exclusively white company, whose members do not realise she is black. Someone makes a racist remark, and she lists the options then available to her, ranging from silence, to speaking out, to abdicating her identity altogether by ‘blending in’. The last option she lists is passing her calling card to the individual that made the remark:
Piper writes of these gestures as opening up dialogue between herself and the individual(s) who made the remark, a way to speak across gulfs of ignorance and power.
The squatting of poets in the space of art criticism has a decidedly New York feel to it, dawdling in the wake of Frank O’Hara and the late John Ashbery, and the feminist legacies of Eileen Myles and Kathy Acker. In Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution, Acker in the ekphrastic mode embarked on ‘realistic’ descriptions of paintings by Goya, Caravaggio and Ghezzi; ‘I have simply described some of them. They aren’t or don’t include judgements. I haven’t judged them.’ Kathy Acker (1984) ‘Realism and the Cause for Future Revolution’ in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis ed. (New York, New Museum of Contemporary Art) 31-41 Yet these straightforward descriptions reveal poetic truths otherwise only hinted at by the paintings, skewing bodies, genders and power dynamics:
‘A man who has light hair, since he’s looking in a mirror, is female.’
‘Humans’re both dogs and skulls.’
‘The world is sick. Why? There’s no reason.
It’s sick because there’re monsters in it.’
This playful preterition is typical of Acker—claiming a simple directness while shocking with the intensity of ‘realism’ as she sees it. For this season, ekphrasis—in all its vicissitudes—will temporarily inhabit the space of critical reviews. MAP has invited poets to respond to exhibitions, with as much loyalty or antagonism to the ekphrastic tradition as they see fit. Both Acker and Piper take us back to the source of ekphrasis: that acts of naming are challenges to power, ‘calling out’ so that whatever has been objectified might speak.
Daisy Lafarge is reviews editor at MAP
This exploration of ekphrasis is indebted to ‘Worthless Objects’, an event on the same subject organised by Sophie Collins during her associate poet residency at ICA in 2015. Participants included myself, Rachael Allen, Kathryn Maris and Denise Saul.
The title is respectfully borrowed from Adrian Piper’s performance text, ‘Notes of Performing Objects I Have Been’ (1974)