01 August, 2006

Against ekphrasis

A friend of mine once wrote an essay on ekphrasis, one of those badly-coined jargon-words littering lit-crit but failing the OED test (for now), imported from the Greek to denote any poetic description of a painting or visual scene. The classic early examples are Homer's elaboration of Achilles' shield in The Iliad, and Vergil's delineation of the images wrought upon the bronze gates at Carthage, bringing back to Aeneas all his painful memories of the Trojan War (1.453-493):

Namque videbat, uti bellantes Pergama circum
hac fugerent Graii, premeret Troiana iuventus,
hac Phryges, instaret curru cristatus Achilles.
Nec procul hinc Rhesi niveis tentoria velis
adgnoscit lacrimans, primo quae prodita somno
Tydides multa vastabat caede cruentus,
ardentisque avertit equos in castra, prius quam
pabula gustassent Troiae Xanthumque bibissent.

Homer and Vergil both describe imaginary tableaux, and use them as a locus for allegory (good government, bad government—see here) and emotional reflection (mentem mortalia tangunt, 'mortal things touch [his] mind'), but now the term 'ekphrasis' more often refers to verbal renditions of actual paintings, renditions which apparently have scant more purpose than mere description. As a case-study, my friend chose Brueghel's—and that's Pieter 'Peasant' Brueg(h)el the ElderHunters in the Snow (1565), part of the master's 'Book of Hours' cycle, and one of the most famous and most ravishing works ever put to canvas. It was a good choice, because at least four ekphrastic poems have been composed about it, by Walter de la Mare, John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, and Joseph Langland (as well as that line about skating kiddies in Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'). Helpfully, they've been assembled at this site (WM JB WCW JL), so they can be perused in all their shoddiness.

I won't reproduce these efforts here, because I think that the same thing is wrong with all of them—each poem uses words in a highly inefficient and inelegant way, putting them to a task for which they are singularly unqualified. De la Mare writes in old-fashioned rhymes and turns, Williams and Langland in free verse; but it doesn't matter—they're all telling us what they see, and unfortunately, that's pretty much the same as what we see, only without the beauty of the original painting. None of them tells us what is beautiful about it—whether the subtle, expansive colouring, or the perfect interplay between receding detail and obscurity, or the bitter accentuation of the snow by silhouette in thick masses.

What elements of each poem can't be derived from a glance at Brueghel himself? De la Mare weeps so poignantly about 'him / Who squandered here life's mystery', when it is De la Mare who has squandered Brueghel's mystery. Berryman spews out some hackneyed lines about the 'sandy time / To come. . . when all their company/ Will have been irrevocably lost', about the moment in time captured for posterity. Williams numbly musters a reference to Brueghel as 'the painter / concerned with it all'. And Langland prattles vapidly on about form: 'neutral evening of indeterminate form', 'the fabulous hour of shape and form'. It's all so wet. Why does poetry have to be so bloody wet?

Update: at least one kudo to my correspondent R, who noticed that Hunters in the Snow is in fact painted on wood panel, not canvas. It was just a test, of course. Also, I continue my critique of ekphrasis here, and Gawain develops my argument in his own inimitable way here. Look ma, they're talking about me!

1 comment:

Gawain said...

Now I understand your poem.

I don't know that poetry per say is wet (though I seem unable to engage my brain with it, especially not English poetry -- did I come to the language too late?).

(And of course, you don't mean it).

Rather, I think, you put your finger on the larger problem of aesthetics: that faced with the problem to say something about why something is beautiful, we all end up spewing some sort of (usually hackneyed) trivia.

I don't know why that is, but the problem seems really extraordinarily intractable and is really the chief motivation of all my writing at my blog. (It is good to have a problem you cannot hope to solve -- it can keep you busy forever).