A found dish. Shallow and sweet.

A little around the edges.

A lacking in the middle.

Several lines converging where all begins.

A dark beginning, a convergence.

Something yearning for fin.

Something escaping depth.

Crevice of light.

Green memory of fish bones.

Equating something with or without toes.

In a moment, air.

While crafting the post that was to be posted today (and will now be posted Tuesday...) I found myself staring at a painting to my left and thinking about ekphrasis or the function of description in contemporary poetry. Thinking of Tender Buttons, for example, and how liberating that text was for me. Thinking of how my students engage in this practice after seeing a/ flat art and b/ conceptual art. Thinking about an exercise in description. Thinking too of Kenny Goldsmith's  comments about how we look at art vs. how we look at poetry during his talk at Concordia in January. One doesn't, for example, try to read a painting from the top left corner, describing it square by square the way an artist might have blocked it in...and then wondering of course, what that would be like. This reminded me of a post on Don Share's blog a while back in which he noted or queried as he does so well, the idea that ekphrasis, and perhaps the lit mag, are dead. Do you think ekphrasis is dead? What are we doing when we are writing poems about art? What makes for a remarkable ekphrastic  poem? How far can we take our descriptions? Can you guess what the painting I described above is?

Check out Goldsmith on Cole Swenson on what to do besides "describe it" here.

Originally Published: March 27th, 2010

Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of the poetry collection MxT (2014) and Unleashed (2010), a selection of posts from...

  1. March 27, 2010
     Miriam Levine

    Ekphrasis is not dead! Remember when some said the novel was dead? Oh, all the art forms that have been pronounced dead. \r

    The best ekphrastic poem occurs when there is a sense that the poet has been ravished and reborn.

  2. March 28, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Miriam, \r
    I'm wondering what kind of poem you might offer to illustrate the sensation you describe? Wonder too how literal we take the act of description. I do find it very interesting to chart the difference between students' responses to flat art versus conceptual art. Wondering too, just to spin the question a little further out, what Stein's notion that there is no "air" in painting does to the act of writing about painting...If you haven't heard the Poem Talk episode on Barbara Guest's response to Stein's statement, I highly recommend it. \r

    You can find the Guest episode here: \r

    If there are no guesses as to what I am describing above I will put the image up shortly.

  3. March 28, 2010
     Edward Mycue

    hey, wait up, you guys. if ecphrasis is the "speak out" that is graphic and as wikipedia says is an "often dramatic description of a visual or other work of art" being "a rhetorical device where one medium of art tries to relate to another"\r
    then the review (and i guess any 'review") \r
    of CHLOE\r
    (w/julianne moore and liam neeson and amanda siegfried) in the current PACIFIC SUN (marin, california weekley by Kelly ..."cherry"?....)\r
    fits the bill\r
    here more simply by referring to the character liam neeson plays as a tart-magnet horn-dog albeit an innocent one. movie review. \r
    please explain further if this doesn't.\r

  4. March 29, 2010

    If Ashbery is alive, then I don't think ekprhasis can be dead.

  5. March 29, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Arguably as long as poetry is alive ekphrasis is alive...but again, how? Have our expectations changed? I know mine have. I'm more interested in how things are described than I am in what is being described...

  6. March 29, 2010

    I like to think any ekphrastic work can stand on its own as a work of art, and that knowing what the inspiration or whatever is only deepens the understanding. I mean, I like the poem you put up there but I have no idea what the painting is. Actually, now that I think of it, I think my favorite type of ekphrastic poem is the unacknowledged ekphrastic poem, where the reader senses SOMETHING hovering behind the work, but it's never fully revealed. \r

    Also: are there any good ekphrastic poems that work from video art? Like a suite of Bill Viola poems?

  7. March 29, 2010
     Colin Ward


    Good points.\r

    "Also: are there any good ekphrastic poems that work from video art?" \r

    If "video art" includes movies I'd cite Erin Hopson's "How Aimee remembers Jaguar", published on \r
    http://www.thehypertexts.com/ (under "Contemporary Poets" hit "more poets..." then "Erin Hopson").\r


  8. March 29, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Interesting that you mention Bill Viola...I have a long poem I have been working on, responding to several of his pieces, but it hasn't come together quite yet. I have never been able to stay in one of his installations long enough to fully describe the entire event, and if I did, I would be venturing into Kenny Goldsmith territory...but it tempts me. I have, on the other hand, sat and watched his videos for hours in the privacy of my studio, describing. \r

    But to what end? Description itself is merely description.

  9. March 29, 2010

    That's great you're writing an ekphrastic poem on Bill Viola. Are you going to publish it somewhere?\r

    For his retrospective show at SFMOMA, Viola supposedly held an all-night reception where the galleries were open from dusk till dawn and Viola himself roamed the galleries, inviting visitors to ask him questions and engage him in conversation. I didn't go, I felt too intimidated, but the whole arrangement seemed the perfect extension of his time-based aesthetic.\r

    Staying long enough in an installation to describe the whole event sounds like it'd be right up his alley. Description is description but it's also a description of the experience of the art. It's the poet's experience that engages me, that's why a good ekphrastic poem can stand on its own.

  10. March 30, 2010

    That is a weird sync there. I wonder how many other poets are working on such a thing with Bill Viola. He's just a name that popped into my head. I'm sure there's a decent amount of langpo that is inspired by Bruce Nauman . . . this seems like something Thom would know about, this kind of conceptual ekphrasistic stuff. Thom? Thoughts?

  11. March 30, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    I don't always want to meet or speak to a poet or artist that I admire. Sometimes it's very important, other times I would rather be left with the work and not have a person attached to it...so your decision to not speak to Viola seems logical to me. \r

    The fact of staying, of sticking to the project, is very difficult and shouldn't be underestimated. It's the thing that people miss with Goldsmith. One might not care for his work, but the duration, the physical fact of it, harkens back to the Romantics much more than the kind of seminar room composition practices we find today. \r

    As for Viola, I don't think it's weird. He's so much in the air it's inevitable that someone do this project--likely a factor in my not committing fully to it.

  12. March 30, 2010
     Sarah Portman

    Soloman Lam has written interestingly on Margaret Atwood's ekphrastic poetry in relation to mythologized woman figures.

  13. March 31, 2010
     Thom Donovan

    I haven't been in a comment stream in weeks (tho Sina's are the best at this site by far--rich with communal dialogue, enthusiastic critical debate, and much else). I actually have some poems for Nauman in EOAGH 4, edited by Tim Peterson:\r

    oh yeah, and I just posted some of my own thoughts (admittedly very sketchy) on ekphrasis above. maybe you'll find them interesting or useful Joshua?\r

    best wishes,\r