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Journal, Day Two

By Kay Ryan

Ekphrastic poems. Norris Palmstreick asks if I write them. Well, now that I have looked up the word and determined that an ekphrastic poem is one that describes another work of art, usually a painting but also possibly sculpture or music, I am prepared to say that I have done so, after a fashion, but not recently.

I should start by admitting that I have a certain prejudice. I am inclined to see poems-about-paintings as easy poems, or exercises, or trainer poems. The writer is playing tennis against a nice, solid backboard. The artwork is already there; all the poet has to do is dance around in front of something both fixed and culturally valuable. One feels a sense of pre-approval if one writes about Great Art.

But please, I don’t want anybody throwing Rilke’s torso in my face. Of course there is no “kind” of poetry that one can really say is “easy” or any such thing. We all just have approaches that rub us mostly the wrong way.

Twenty years ago, yes; I demonstrated definite ekphrastic tendencies: poems treating of Hopper, Van Gough, Matisse, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Chagall, even Giotto and El Greco. And why wouldn’t poets write about artists of all kinds? One is alone and cherishes the struggles (ending in triumph, of course) of others who were alone. Also, there is the pleasure of jobbing out one’s aesthetic musings.

Maybe I’m wrong to think I ever really wrote ekphrastic poems. I have always found “material” (such as the content of a picture, or a story from my life or anyone else’s) very hot to stand on; I’ve had to jump off pretty fast. Here is my kind of poem-about-a painting from my first book (1983):


Mary Cassatt

Do colors
call to one another—
lilac in a window
call green; green
beg relief from
thing the other’s
name? No lilac
without end?

my mother’s choice,
one bush
by the desert house
against sand and
bitter wind
called to her
green, green
without end.

This little poem owes more to color theory—the idea of complements—than to Mary Cassatt, and doesn’t tell you a thing about the painting. It did give me a way in to say something personal about my mother, though, that I’m sure I could never have come to if I hadn’t started with the idea of colors calling to one another, and the possibility of their getting no answer. The idea came from a painting by Mary Cassatt, but that really doesn’t matter.

I have always been uncomfortable describing what already exists. Existing things are just too hot, too self-radiant. My words get soft and gluey if I try to mold them into a facsimile of something. If I were a sculptor, it would be as if I were forced to work with clay that clung to my fingers instead sticking to my projected dog sculpture.

But enough complaining. An artist I’ve returned to over and over in poems is not a painter but the French composer, Eric Satie. In contrast to the thoroughly not-Cassatt poem above, the Satie poem that follows IS, I think, very Satie—and ekphrastic—even though it’s a pure fabrication. Because I’m going to define an ekphrastic poem as one that invokes the spirit of the artist (without having to describe features of any actual work.) Call me a cheater.

Here’s my entry (from 1996) in the Ekphrasti-Off:

(The Little Jams)

These three pieces
in Satie’s elegant notation
were just discovered
at the Metro station
where he rolled them
in a Figaro of April twenty-second
nineteen twenty-seven,
and put them in a pipe
two inches in diameter, the type
then commonly used for banisters.
They are three sticky pieces
for piano or banjo—
each instrument to be played
so as to sound like the other.
That is really the hub
of the amusement. Each piece
lasts about a minute.
When they were first tried
after being in the pipe,
they kept rolling back up.
Really, keeping them flat
was half the banjo-piano
man’s work.

This story is so made up that even the date in it doesn’t work. Satie was dead years before the poem has him rolling up his manuscript. Satie did not write any “Little Jams” (though of course he wrote much ridiculously titled music). But this is of no consequence. Nothing is of any consequence, and that’s the thing. It’s just a poem having some fun, in the spirit of Satie’s music.

Actually, I don’t care at all if it’s ekphrastic; I adore Satie, but all I care about is I found a little jumping off place for myself to try to be free. And of course that’s how every poem uses material; a poem can’t over-respect its material. Even that torso; it would never have spoken German without Rilke.


Again, I invite comments. Get them in early because I’m depending on them for tomorrow. In answer to Montgomery Maxton’s question as to whether blogs must really be “spur-of-the-moment,” I’m behaving like that’s the rule partly because that’s what seems to distinguish them from other sorts of “notebooks” or “journals”—they’re operating in a very speedy interactive medium that is splattered all over the world and, as best we understand it, are worrisomely permanent despite their offhand immediacy—and partly because I didn’t prepare in advance.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, December 5th, 2006 by Kay Ryan.