By Patrick Smith, Bainbridge State College, Georgia
Writers have drawn on vivid descriptions of the visual arts to enhance their work since Homer famously used 130 lines to describe the chronicle emblazoned on Achilles’s shield in Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad more than 2,500 years ago.
Ekphrasis—the representation in language of a work of art—acts as an organizing principle in poetry and fiction, making explicit the connection between art, storytelling, and life. Acting in multiple roles in contemporary literature—both as an interpretive key to a work of art (either real or imagined) and as a descriptive device that enriches narrative and explores the relationship between writer and audience—those descriptions create, Michael Trussler writes, “a kind of ontological miniature that signals a world beyond the confines of the text.”
Although ekphrasis hasn’t been explored to the extent it deserves in contemporary literature, plenty of writers view art as a grounding point for the worlds into which their readers venture. These examples just scratch the surface.
1. John Ashbery—Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)
Known as a poet’s poet, Ashbery recalls the work of 16th-century artist Parmigianino, mingling art criticism with bittwersweet meditations on time, memory, and relationships: “A breeze like the turning of a page/Brings back your face: the moment/Takes such a big bite out of the haze/Of pleasant intuition it comes after.” Ashbery won a Pulitzer for his effort in 1975. Genevieve Kaplan’s insightful essay on “Self Portrait” is a useful primer to the poet’s work and ekphrasis in general.
2. Anne Carson—“Hopper: Confessions” (2000, from Men in the Off Hours)
Carson can lay claim to the ekphrastic crown, having focused her considerable facility with language on a number of painters and works over the years. None of Carson’s work resonates with readers more than her suite of poems conflating the art of Edward Hopper and fourth-century philosopher and theologian Augustine. “I mostly think of my work as a painting,” Carson says in an interview with Kevin McNeilly. “It’s about the way they interact with each other as daubs of meaning, you know as impressionist colours interact, daubs of paint, and you stand back and see a story emerge from the way that the things are placed next to each other. You can also do that with language.”
3. William Gibson—Count Zero (1986)
Joseph Cornell-style boxes and the trippy, sado-erotic art of H. R. Giger are two of the dominant ekphrastic images in the fiction of William Gibson, the most recognizable SF writer on the planet. Gibson’s work jumps off the page, taking readers for a ride on the pop-culture wave between the present and a future that’s not only on its way, but already here (and very quickly gone). “It has something to do with fetishism, the sexuality of junk,” Gibson tells Takayuki Tatsumi in a 1986 interview of his fascination with Cornell. “He was a Lovecraftian figure in the extreme.” Much of Gibson’s world-building comes from his own vast imagination, of course, but he uses descriptions of art to give heft to that vision and a playful self-referentiality to the work.
4. Steven Millhauser—Catalogue of the Exhibition (1993, from Little Kingdoms)
Millhauser won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his novel Martin Dressler, the rags-to-riches story of a fin de siècle New York hotelier, but he uses ekphrasis to greatest effect in Elizabeth Moorash’s journals detailing her brother’s art in Catalogue of the Exhibition, the keystone story in the author’s first novella collection. In an old fashioned tale of love, madness, and death, master fabulist Millhauser creates an unsettling sense of movement within the stasis of Moorash’s paintings, exploring the boundaries between the solid and immutable physical world and the shifting, transmutable realm of art.
5. Marianne Moore—“Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain” (1934)
Over a career lasting more than six decades, when Marianne Moore wasn’t writing about baseball (try reading “Baseball & Writing” without a twinge of nostalgia), she often focused her efforts on ekphrastic renderings of the paintings with which she had become enamored. Her most famous of those poems was “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” in which Moore relates to Chinese art through both direct observation and second- and third-hand descriptions of that art. “Moore was a poet who intuitively understood the value and meaning of everyday objects as fractured images of her own contradictory historical moment,” critic Victoria Bazin writes. “It should be no surprise that Moore’s ekphrastic tribute to the precision of Chinese art is not only constructed out of quoted fragments from newspapers and collector’s manuals but is based on a Chinese plate her mother saw in the display window for a Pierce Arrow Motor Car.”
6. Tim O’Brien—“The Things They Carried” (1990, from The Things They Carried)
In scenes evocative of the Vietnam photography of Philip Jones Griffiths and Barbara Gluck, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” catalogs the physical and psychological burden borne by Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his soldiers. The metaphor and pervasive symbolism developed through the dissection of snapshot images of war grounds the story in a recognizable context and makes immediate the soldiers’ surreal slog through the alien and deadly Vietnam countryside. Similar literary images drawn from the art of the Vietnam experience can be found in Yosef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” and Alberto Rios’s “The Vietnam Wall,” both meditations on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington, DC, as well as the fiction of Robert Stone, Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country, poet Bruce Weigl’s collection Song of Napalm, the reportage of Philip Caputo and Michael Herr, and many others.
7. Salman Rushdie—The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995)
Rushdie will always be best known for living under a fatwa for a decade after the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 (an ordeal he details in his recent Joseph Anton: A Memoir). But the work that draws on visual images is understated and powerful, and in The Moor’s Last Sigh, narrator Moraes Zogoiby reconstructs his family’s history through the paintings of his mother, Aurora; several of his most intimate relationships are with women who create their identities through art. “In telling his family history, Moraes repeatedly confesses that his mother’s paintings are the main sources of his stories,” critic Cristina Baniceru writes. “They are large baroque paintings that have a direct correspondence in Rushdie’s flamboyant style.”
8. Anne Sexton—“The Starry Night” (1961)
Sexton’s confessional poetry explored her lifelong battle with depression (she took her own life in 1974 at the age of 45), and even her ekphrastic poem describing one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings ends with a death fantasy for the poet, whose refrain is “This is how I want to die”: “into that rushing beast of night,” sucked up by that great dragon, to split/from my life with no flag,/no belly,/no cry.”
9. Charles Willeford—The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971)
Willeford’s hardboiled chops were among the best in the business over a career spanning more than four decades and 20 novels. His best book features art critic James Figueras chasing the MacGuffin in the form of the title painting by French artist Jacques Debierue. Both artist and painting are a figment of Willeford’s inventive and often warped imagination—and one of the great uses of the visual arts in contemporary literature. Few crime writers create more compelling or disturbing characters. Read an overview of the novel at Swiftly Tilting Planet.
Williams is best known for his descriptions of wheelbarrows, rain, and chickens in “The Read Wheelbarrow.” In a style echoing Ezra Pound’s Imagist mantra to “make it new”—Williams’ corollary was “no ideas but in things”—the poet crafted “The Great Figure,” lines devoted to an intricate description of the number on the front of a fire truck. Williams’ poem was the inspiration for Charles Demuth’s painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928), one of the keystones of Precisionism in American art and the only example of literature’s influencing art on this list.
Patrick A. Smith is professor of English at Bainbridge State College (GA) and an associate editor at Bookmarks Magazine. His books include “The true bones of my life”: Essays on the Fiction of Jim Harrison, Tim O’Brien: A Critical Companion, and the edited collection Conversations with Tim O’Brien, as well as interviews, articles, reviews, and stories in numerous magazines and journals. Conversations with William Gibson will be published in 2014.
Images: top: Marie-Lan Nguyen, photograph of the Shield of Achilles (2011); bottom: Charles Demuth, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (public domain).
For further reading:
“Notes on Ekphrasis,” by Alfred Corn. An instructive overview of ekphrasis in poetry.
Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, by James Heffernan (University of Chicago Press, 1993). Probably the most widely quoted scholarly text on the subject.
The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art, by John Hollander (University of Chicago Press, 1995). A straightforward guide to ekphrasis drawing on more than 50 paintings and paired poems.
Enchanted Objects: Visual Art in Contemporary Fiction, by Allan Hepburn (University of Toronto Press, 2010). A study of aesthetics and literature’s treatment of art objects.
The Art of Description: World into Word, by Mark Doty (Graywolf Press, 2010). A love letter to the aesthetics of poetry from a world-class poet.