I am astonishingly tired this evening, and can’t seem to get anything in my brain to function properly. Maybe it’s just the pre-work-week doldrums sinking in particularly hard (especially because I had to check work emails and such this weekend, ugh), or the fact that I am going on vacation at the end of the week, and I’ve already checked out. So this will be a take-it-easy kind of Reverie!
This week: “ekphrastic ecstatic”
Ekphrasis is something that I don’t get into that often, but I enjoy it when the opportunity comes along. If you aren’t familiar with the concept (and you probably should be, since most prompt sites have done it at one time or another), the idea is to talk about a work of visual art in a more-than-just-description way. You allow the work to tell a story and summon up emotions in you; I suppose you could write just a point-by-point description of a still life, without any narrative, but where is the fun in that?
One ongoing discussion I have with a couple friends (and I wrote a poem about this once) is the value of abstract modern art. I’m not as crass as to say something like “a five-year-old could do that”, but I do get indignant when people trumpet the value of a painting that’s, I don’t know, three blocks of different shades of red, over a Monet waterlily panel. (First of all, learn art history before you call the Monet outdated: that Rothko wouldn’t even exist without Monet’s foundational changes to Western art.) The two can coexist side-by-side, serving different functions to an art viewer, so why talk about one being “better” than the other, or saying that either is deficient in some way?
That being said, certainly you can have a preference, and some works may resonate better for you than others. (An abstract blocks-of-color painting will resonate with me, but not as strongly or easily as a Monet; some people are the opposite.) I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that poetic ekphrasis is easier with works that have some kind of form in them. But you all know how much I love a challenge, and with that in mind, I present to you a handful of 20th-century somewhat-well-known abstract works for you to pick apart:
(To any and all individuals or organizations who check on these things: I do not claim credit for either these original works (obviously) or these lo-res versions of them. They are reproduced here solely for creative-inspiration purposes, and no copyright infringement of any kind is intended.)
So, the challenge itself is fairly straightforward: write a poem about one (or all) of these paintings. But don’t make it a pure description of the colors and shapes, give it some substance, either emotional or form-ish. You can talk about the memories that one of the paintings summons, or the visceral reaction you’d have from seeing this hung in a gallery; you can find a story somewhere in the brushstrokes if you want, or create one that on the surface might seem to be a riddle with no bearing on the work. Most ekphrastic poems have the work included, or a subtitle like “(on viewing such-and-such)”, so that the line of inspiration is clear.
For another kind of idea, you can try to represent the painting not through content, but through sound. Make a kind of phonological painting that tries to match these. The Pollock might become a collection of words whose sounds you feel reflect those colors, in long, twisted lines that wind around each other; while the Rothko might be in very regular, blocklike stanzas. Ekphrasis can exist in music, too: if you don’t know Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of classical music pieces inspired by paintings, give it a listen. It’s an excellent example of how you don’t even need to see the original work; the music and title alone create something much more lush in your imagination. (Especially good for this: “The Hut on Chicken’s Legs”.) Think of those principles when deciding what poetic tools at your disposal you want to use for tackling one of these.
I can almost guarantee you that this will be the only ekphrastic Reverie I do, I’m just feeling particularly lazy tonight. And if you need some parting amusement, here are two scenes, from Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam and Steve Martin’s LA Story, which might give you some directions to go in, or not. A multimedia extravaganza, is this post, ladies and gents!