Janée J. Baugher
Art to Art: Ekphrastic Poetry
“When I had eyes what did I do with sight.”—Frank Bidart
The first time I committed ekphrasis was in 1995 at the Guggenheim. It was a small painting by Georg Baselitz that caused in me the Stendhal syndrome. Floating amid concentric circles painted in reds and browns, a dwarfish man with malformed limbs. Crude sketches of serpents and snakes create a vortex around him. Seemingly bewildered, his eyes are fused open and mouth agape. The painting was entitled Der Dichter, German for the poet. Although I hadn’t yet been introduced to the term ekphrasis (from the Greek, meaning description), naïvely I called my poem, “Poet Describing Painting Describing Poet.” A decade later I would come to recognize that what I had done in that New York museum was as commonplace as any other poetic movement.
James A.W. Heffernan in Museum of Words defines ekphrasis as “the verbal representation of visual representation,” and with this definition comes much debate. What exactly are ekphrastic poets trying to do? Many controversies related to ekphrasis stem from the efficacy of appropriation, the premise that ekphrasists seek to upstage visual art with verbal interpretation, and the problem with root description. Is a poet’s engagement with the visual arts tantamount to poaching? Or, could the art of ekphrasis have something to do with the annihilation of framed constraints? Furthermore, do the ekphrasists seek to challenge an object d’art in a mano-a-mano? Maybe a better topic for discussion is the limitation of the word ekphrasis. Perhaps meta-ekphrasis is a more suitable term, as ekphrasists tend to transcend the bounds of the object d’art.
Interpretation is the antithesis of ekphrasis. While ekphrasis is a type of experiment, anchored in visual imagery, it is not forensics. In the medical field, X rays, ultrasounds, and electrocardiograms for example require review, interpretation, and analysis in order for doctors to diagnose. Creating ekphrastic poetry – or poetry of any type, for that matter—involves the irrational part of the brain (i.e. the unconscious mind). In Poetics Aristotle writes, “It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen.” Ruminations on an object d’art are never conclusive.
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, fascinated by the unconscious mind, studied the impersonal creative process, an idea culled from Eastern philosophies. Jung theorized that meditation and detachment of self can lead to a truer kind of art-making. According to Jung, introverted art is motivated by the poet’s conscious intent, which thereby suffocates the demands of the object. (In the case of ekphrasis, the object can be a painting, print, installation, etc.) Yet, in the spirit of extraverted art, the poet abandons intention by wholly submitting to the object’s demands. In this way, ekphrasists subvert their own conscious agendas for the myriad of possibilities insisted on by an object. This Jungian method of allowing the creative instinct ultimate reign can enable the poet to leap from an object to the universe.
Echoing the work of Carl Jung, the surrealists (with André Breton at the helm) created various games of automatism, which enticed their players into a hypnopompic state. These games included automatic writing and drawing, exquisite corpse, echo poem-making, and collage, which all sought to liberate the unconscious mind. A Surrealist approach can stir up within you what is beyond you.
Before there was Carl Jung teaching us about the difference between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind and what it has to do with art-making, there was German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Referring to his 1907 collection New Poems, Rilke says he made poems that “were not about feelings felt but about things felt.” During the time that Rilke was employed as Auguste Rodin’s secretary, the French sculptor revealed to Rilke that he engaged with each piece of marble soberly, sans preconception. Looking as a meditative act. Inspired, Rilke adopted Rodin’s method for his own poem writing. As a result, Rilke’s dinggedichte (thing-poems) were products of detached gazing and included sculpture by Rodin and paintings by Paul Cézanne.
The art of ekphrasis is predicated upon the act of seeing. As a rule, the mind recalls images more easily than words. Seeing is a preverbal experience, and it’s no wonder, as seventy percent of our body’s sense receptors cluster in the eyes. Through neurological pathways, the brain organizes and synthesizes visual input. However, what is seen pivots undeniably on perception. Henry David Thoreau reminds us, “It is not what you look at, but what you see.” How is a person’s art-making affected if he has a propensity for trompe l’oeil? Through unintentional acts of deception, both sight and words fail. Each looking event is a fusion of mis-seeing with seeing. That is, the viewer’s own proclivity for a skewed seeing is fed by his cerebral and anatomical uniqueness. For example, artists born with abnormal depth perception (called stereopsis) such as Rembrandt and Picasso compensated for their compromised vision by excelling in shading and other techniques, which ultimately rendered them incomparably deft at creating perspective. When an ekphrasist looks at an object, both real- and imagined-visions are at play. In other words, the poet’s work involves making creative use of both accidental and essential errors.
Beauty enraptures. When I meander through a museum and am halted by a particular painting, it’s as if the painting is sporting a red miniskirt and I attempt to pass nonchalantly by but cannot. Pupils dilate and legs become stone in the presence of a beautiful thing. Poets with ekphrastic leanings might attempt to investigate their immobility by jotting down the unutterable. Poets use words to stab at the wordlessness of the feeling of seeing something beautiful. Aesthetics is the ekphrastic poet’s work.
I adore museums: In that quietude and stasis, the possibility of something magical. Visual artist Marcel Duchamp says, “Art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it.” I’ve had the privilege of writing ekphrastic poems at museums in twenty countries, and I find that close physical proximity to the work of art correlates to my aptitude for ekphrasis. Raw material, encountered first-hand. The palpability of standing face-to-canvas, the object before me, savvy and still. Curiosity about what I see compels me to my own tabula rasa. I suppose in a room of facts, settle on the miracle of my two eyes.
Invariably, some of the notes I take inside the museum include the museum itself, the other patrons, and the artist’s studio. I lack the skill to reconstruct pictorially what I see, and so I suffer from artist envy. I wish to stun my eyes into getting precisely what the artist beheld, to align myself physically with him, to lean over his shoulder close enough to smell paint. Principally, I commit ekphrasis because it’s uncertain. Before a painting I am vulnerable and my hands are guilty. My eyes are false and unapologetic witnesses, and I realize what I have truly seen only after I have written it.