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Ekphrasis

PAOLOZZI_1I’m currently working with my students looking at Eduardo Paolozzi: General Dynamic F.U.N which is the Hayward Gallery’s touring exhibition and we’re doing a combination of found poetry, using texts about Paolozzi and his life, and  responses to his work. He’s described as a compulsive collector, a jumbler of icons and a pioneer of Pop. We’re somehow creating poetic photo-montage.

A while ago I wrote a piece about ekphrasis and thought I’d post it here. It’s a summary really – a bit about other exhibitions and books, and a bit about definitions. It was written as an introduction to ekphrasis – an ekphrastic painting-by-numbers.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary ekphrasis is “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art” and hails from the Greek, ek and phrasis, ‘out’ and ‘speak’. So in this instance it is a poem that comments on another art form, for example a photograph or painting. It flourished with the Romantics; ekphrastic poetry has been around forever and is very much alive and kicking today. In 1996 Blake Morrison wrote Pendle Witches, collaborating with the artist Dame Paula Rego to produce a large format book of poems and 12 etchings published by Enitharmon.

metamorphosis-poems-inspired-by-titianAn excellent collection published by The National Gallery, Metamorphosis: Poems Inspired by Titian has 14 leading poets’ responses to three great masterpieces by the Renaissance painter, Titian: Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon. There’s a diverse range of poems from poets including Hugo Williams, Jo Shapcott, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, George Szirtes and Lavinia Greenlaw, each illustrated with full-colour details from Titian’s work. It demonstrates how strongly art speaks to writers and how it can be interpreted 500 years later. A nice tie-in is the readings by the poets on the gallery website.

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A fantastic collection, What the Water Gave Me is published by Pascale Petit who runs “Poetry from Art” courses at the Tate. It is a fabulously rich and powerful book. Scottish poet and author Jackie Kay describes the poems as “fresh as paint… [that] make you look all over again at Frida and her brilliant and tragic life.” Kay’s book, Reality, Reality, is just out from Pan Macmillan. What’s interesting about this collection is that you don’t necessarily need to know that much about Frida Kahlo’s work and life, it’s all there in the poems, but it does make you want to hunt out the gallery exhibiting her work.

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It’s books like Petit’s that made me really interested in the idea of cross-media work. When I wrote Eva and George – Sketches in Pen and Brush the project snowballed and grew into a collection with illustrations by the artist, George Grosz, alongside the poems. I got swept away by his work and felt as if I inhabited his skin, or rather his wife’s, as the whole collection is written entirely using her imagined voice. Plunging yourself head first into someone else’s work can have an astonishing effect on your writing.

Formerly- coverIn this year’s Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry Tamar Yoseloff’s collection of sonnets illustrating Vici MacDonald’s photographs of London made the shortlist. Formerly is a memorial to a disappearing city and Yoseloff spent hours looking through thousands of photos in order to select the 14 she needed for the collection, each supported by a sonnet, irregular and anarchic. Why the sonnet? Yoseloff explains, “I decided early on that my poems should be sonnets, the classic form for elegy, but also the appropriate length for a small glimpse”. The collection is 14cm x 12cm and fits into your pocket (well, almost) and there’s something rather nice about knowing it is there – a bit of London and a collection of sonnets in the back pocket of your jeans.

First published in newbooks magazine.

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3 thoughts on “Ekphrasis”

  1. I’d love to know how you and your students end up displaying/ preseningt/ publishing the responses to Paolozzi . New name to me, so you’re helping my education too. I’ve been having fun looking through the Tate page. Here’s one I like – must be the Kool-Aid . Ha! Just realizing what a clever name it was for the product. 🙂 .http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/paolozzi-12-refreshing-and-delicious-p02031 And I’m just leafing through again my copy of your book – “Eva and George” – another artist that I’ve been introduced to – because of you. This bouncing off of each other – as writers, readers, artists – seems to be the way we humans create new things.

  2. What happened to .With a poet’s eye’? Is that still around. I worked from that for years with students. UA Fanthorpe’s triptych still the one that stays. I spent years writing monologues for famous sculptures on the grounds they imprison the souls of transgressive souls and fallen angels. No one much likes them
    The poems. But I shall follow yr blog from now on.

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