Ekphrasis: Moving Beyond One’s Self in Poetry

In the latest in the Word & Image series, Marianne Szlyk discusses the influences of art on her poetry and how referring to other forms can help writers get ‘beyond the limitations of the self’.

Somewhere along the way I remember reading the singer-songwriter Richard Thompson’s statement that he attributed his lengthy career as a songwriter to his ability to write about subjects other than himself. I can’t call my own poetic career lengthy yet, but I think about Thompson’s words often when I write. Ekphrasis is certainly one way to move beyond oneself (although any ekphrastic poem will indirectly reflect the poet’s experience and preferences).

My new book, On the Other Side of the Window, contains a few ekphrastic poems, as did my earlier books, Listening to Electric Cambodia, Looking up at Trees of Heaven and I Dream of Empathy. In fact, the title poem of I Dream of Empathy responded to Ken Gonzalez-Day’s photograph of a California tree where a Latino had been lynched, and the cover of my book is an image of Bea Garth’s painting Empathy, which I respond to in the poem ‘Imagining Empathy’. Gonzalez-Day’s photograph even served as a bracing corrective to personal and nature poetry, to name two subgenres I often write. In other words, I consider ekphrasis to be an important tool in my poetic kit whether I know the artist (as with Bea Garth) or I have encountered the artwork in a museum or even online (as with Ken Gonzalez-Day). Returning to On the Other Side of the Window, my poems may even blur the line as I often use the internet to do research on places. For example, ‘We Disaster Tourists Travel to the Salton Sea’ does not respond to a particular photograph or painting but grew beyond the first draft as I looked at various images of the dried-up sea available through Google Images.

As a way to move beyond oneself, ekphrasis has often helped me overcome writer’s block. I remember how trips to the National Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC have enabled me to write promising poems at times when I had been feeling stymied. Art exposes one to different ways of perceiving the world as well as to different subject matter. Cézanne’s At the Water’s Edge (1890) allowed me to imagine a world before air-conditioning and easy long-distance travel, when a summer house might be on a pond rather than on an exotic island or distant beach, when darkness meant coolness, a retreat, and light represented the heat that one wanted to escape. Similarly, Adriaen Coorte’s still lives from the late 1600s opened up the doorway, so to speak, to a world before refrigeration and much long-distance travel at all. Art also requires one to recognize the artist’s biography and milieu. In my responses to the work of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, a Japanese-American painter whose career encompassed modernism and American animosity against the Japanese in WWII, I try to refer to these aspects as well as my responses to the artist’s visual style. ‘Between Two Worlds’, I trust, tries to capture the experience of working-class women before World War II changed everything. ‘The Painter Dreams of Nevadaville, Colorado’ broaches Kuniyoshi’s position as an enemy alien at a time of war as well as his failed marriage to a white woman and his memories of a more assimilated life, playing golf and painting seascapes. This is not to say that I write as if I have experienced all this or even imagine being the man who has. Nonetheless, ignoring all of this historical context would be irresponsible, especially given Kuniyoshi’s biography and racial identity. It goes without saying that ekphrasis can lead away from oneself. With a sense of responsibility, however, it leads to admittedly partial and imperfect explorations of other identities and therefore a more satisfying body of work.

Conversely, ekphrastic art can allow one to approach personal topics in a more interesting and productive way. Ever since I was in college, Mark Rothko’s most famous works have always intrigued me. To me, they are windows onto another world. I have used Rothko’s Orange and Yellow and his White, Orange, and Yellow to evoke the tensions I felt between college and life, between 1980s Cambridge and Reagan’s America, in ‘Rothko on Portland Street’. One poem that did not quite make it into On the Other Side of the Window, ‘The Memory of Fire’, also makes use of these tensions, bringing in Jorie Graham’s cover of Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980) and the lure of poetry as a third way, a way to compromise between college and life or between radically different domains such as Cambridge and America in the 1980s. Written within the past two or three years, both of these poems are grounded in my state of mind during the 1980s. Subsequent poems responding to Rothko’s work also reflect my viewing of the play Red (John Logan’s play about the artist) as well as some research into his life. ‘Blue Green and Brown (Rothko 1952)’ was inspired by the tension I felt between my interpretation of the painting given the conditions under which I saw it, namely online, and the artist’s intentions given the conditions under which he expected people to see it, that is, in a museum or even in a chapel. (Fourteen of his paintings are the focal point of Houston’s Rothko Chapel., an interdenominational space). However, since Rothko died in 1970, the idea of viewing his work online might have, at best, flummoxed him and, at worst, outraged him. At some point, it would be interesting to respond to his earlier, more representational work as it is less iconic.

Even though the internet allows us non-travelers to reach out to the art of many cultures, I consider myself fortunate to have visited art museums from the time I was a child. Furthermore, although I am quite far from being a gifted painter, as a teenager, I took several classes in drawing, painting, and design. This life-long exposure has developed an ability to respond to the visual in real life, the museum, and even the internet. I am by no means strictly an ekphrastic poet, even if you count poems responding to music, but it is a steady presence in my work. Once again, this summer I have used a visit to DC’s Freer Gallery and American Art Museum to revive my poetry and move beyond the limitations of the self. I expect to visit other museums and hope to work with artists in the future. At some point, I may even examine the work of artists who are less congenial or less exciting to me, using them to expand my poetry.

Marianne Szlyk is a professor of English and Reading at Montgomery College.  She also edits The Song Is… a blog-zine for poetry and prose inspired by music (especially jazz).  Her new, full-length book, On the Other Side of the Window, is now available from Pski’s Porch and Amazon.   Her poems have appeared in Long Exposure Magazine, the Ekphrastic Review,  of/with, bird’s thumb, Cactifur, Mad Swirl, Setu, Solidago, Red Bird Chapbook’s Weekly Read, and Resurrection of a Sunflower, an anthology of work responding to Vincent Van Gogh’s art.   Her first chapbook, Listening to Electric Cambodia, Looking up at Trees of Heaven, is available online at Kind of a Hurricane Press.  Her second chapbook, I Dream of Empathy, is available on Amazon. She invites you to stop by her blog-zine and perhaps even submit some poems:  http://thesongis.blogspot.com



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