Making Peace with Ekphrastic Poetry (Guest Post by Nate Pritts)

Please welcome Nate Pritts to Poetic Asides! Pritts is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection Sweet Nothing as well as four previous books of poetry. POETRY Magazine called The Wonderfull Yeare “rich, vivid, intimate, & somewhat troubled” & The Rumpus called Big Bright Sun “a textual record of mistakes made and insights gleaned…[in] a voice that knows its part in self-destruction, but the brakes are broken.” His poetry and prose have been widely published, both online and in print, at places like Southern Review, Columbia, Washington Square, Gulf Coast, Boston Review and Rain Taxi, where he frequently contributes reviews. He is the founder and principal editor of H_NGM_N & H_NGM_N BKS.

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If we are indeed human, with a beating human heart, powerful art moves us. If we are writers, this moving experience can move us to try to capture that feeling in writing.

Ekphrasis–loosely defined as the process of responding to works of art through creating another work of art–can be a powerful impulse in poetry. Sometimes the resulting poem describes the work of art under consideration, spinning out details of the piece, or imagining scenarios depicted. Sometimes our poem slips behind the curtain and attempts re-imagining the actual creation of the piece. At other times, the work of art may be used as a springboard for our own creative riffs and flights.

There are many examples of poetic ekphrasis. It seems that poets are particularly drawn to the potentials of this form by the desire to dramatize or describe, to capture or enlarge. One of the most well-known is John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In it, the classical reference point is directly addressed and leads the poet to an intense and fully charged reverie about the people depicted which leads to a somber consideration of the mortality of all our vital pursuits, ending in the quietly ecstatic (and justly famous) revelation of the final two lines.

Perhaps you already have a painting in mind that you’d like to work from–or a piece of music that seems to have a story already residing in it. If so, feel free to stop reading and start writing!

However, when I first encountered ekphrastic poetry–as an assignment in a creative writing class–my experience was very different. I rankled at the idea of being forced to write a poem that took its root in someone else’s experience. Ekphrastic poems seemed to start with a smarmy reference to some classic work of art (like a mumbled password that gained them access to a club I couldn’t hope to be part of) and then continued through references to someone else’s visions, like a newspaper column that studiously avoided adding anything real or revelatory.

Even the term–ekphrasis! So smug, so pretentious! Packed full of its own importance like a dusty library shelf!

Maybe that’s why, years later, I returned to the idea of ekphrastic poetry with an agenda all my own. Rather than write poems referencing great symphonies or energetic and immortal paintings, I wanted to take my cues from the images that had meant the most to me–comic book covers. The four-color flights and trials, the dramatic ways in which the fears and triumphs of the larger than life main characters were played out on epic scale–these were things I could feel passionate about!

But rather than simply describe the events depicted, I decided to work in a much looser method, using a kind of annotational method where I swiped an image here, appropriated snippets of language there, to build something that was wholly my own, where the direct reference was buried though the energy and tension was hopefully of the same variety. Here’s one of the first I wrote, with the image that inspired it.

The Moon’s Invisible Army

Each thought in my head is a missile,
shiny sectioned green metal against
a yellow sky, & each thought thunk
is an explosion of me. For example:
the quality of mercury I love the most
is that it can always scatter & re-
constitute. Or: your long arms
can either turn me away or hold me close.

Living my life in the distant pink
buildings of Backgroundsville, I long
for the full-color of the foreground. I want
to be the first thing you look at, my face
brightly colored with any of one hundred
hundred emotions. On normal days it is blank,
a question. Cradle me in your platinum arms
& hold my head through the long & dreamless
night. I wish I could tell you what it is
that attacks me from the skies, but my terrors
are invisible. Night beasties start their long march
from the moon. I would make my body

into a sledge hammer if I could; I’d knock
each wrong thought from the sky & pound down
the door to your quietly ticking heart.
I’d put you at the center of a big steel house
& polish the walls until my fingers sharpened
into blades of grass. You could see yourself
as I see you. You’d know that you were held
by love & not some baser metal.

from Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX, 2007)

 

I had great fun finding ways to give some new life–my life!–to these images, to dramatize some of my own worries and struggles with elevated grandeur. In fact, Keats himself could have been writing about the same image!

   What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
     What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

In the end, I made my peace with high falutin’ ekphrastic poetry by making it wholly my own, by using the ideas and thoughts I wanted, discarding some others, and being constrained by nothing. So take a stab at writing an ekphrastic poem–be bold and brave enough to see something (or yourself) in a startling and brand new way.

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How do you tell the story you want to tell and capture your audience’s heart?
Learn how with The Writer’s Compass, by Nancy Ellen Dodd. This book shows writers how to get from story map to finished draft in seven stages. No matter the genre of writing, this book navigates writers through the process of telling a story that makes readers feel.

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