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What is ekphrasis?

Watch Alexandra Kingston-Reese explains the literary term 'ekphrasis'.
From Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in The Iliad, to Keats’ famous poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), and to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975), our poetic worlds have long been enchanted by paintings, sculptures, objects, photographs, and artists. Ekphrasis is the name for the poetic technique of describing these works of art–taking a painting, or sculpture, or photograph, and illuminating what emotion lies beneath the paint, in the framing of a face, in the tension held in a leg. Ekphrasis comes from the Greek ek (out from) and phrasis (to speak), so ekphrasis has traditionally imagined the artwork speaking back to the viewer.
In many contemporary examples of ekphrasis, however, the poet speaks to the artworks, but also thinks about the artwork more abstractly–exploiting the compulsion to writing about conflicted, joyous, and frustrating experiences of art–in other words, what it feels to look. Now, for some, the idea that ekphrasis is all about description is a relatively uncontroversial statement. Surely when we describe an object by noting what we see, there’s nothing controversial about that? But ekphrasis, as well as being all about description, is all about subjectivity. Who is doing the looking? What are they looking at? What is chosen to document? Why did the poet choose those features over others to focus on?
So, ekphrasis has long been a white and male tradition, and the works of art described are usually Western in origin, again usually by artists both white and male. In fact, in an anthology published in 1988,
called Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets, guess how many female poets were included? Only three–Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and Elizabeth Bishop–and barely any of the essays considered female artists. Controversially, no poets or artists of colour were featured at all. Questions of diversity, inclusion, and accessibility are bound up in how ekphrasis has developed as a poetic tradition, in part because they are also bound up in the canon formation of poetry and art. Old masters (again, white and male) get most of the attention. Now, why is that? Perhaps it is because, as poet W. H. Auden surmised, “about suffering they were never wrong”, but we could bring in many different factors into this equation.
When thinking about historical poetry, we could consider the class of the poet–which poets had access to museums and art galleries, and which poets were educated or worked in the arts? But we could also consider bigger questions about who had the basic civic freedoms that meant they could become published poets? Poetic ekphrasis in the twenty-first century is thankfully another story. These questions I mentioned earlier–who gets to look, and why, and what they describe when they do–have motivated a range of poets, who have historically been excluded
by ekphrasis: notably female and non-binary poets, and poets of colour. What do women see when they look at art? What do poets of colour see? A prose poem called “Saying Yes to Zeus”, by my colleague Vahni Capildeo, shows us what that vision might look like. The poet casts an eye over the notorious womaniser and rapist, Zeus. At once, this alerts us to the classical origins of ekphrasis–the object at the centre of the poem is a cast of a fifth century BCE bronze statue–and inverts the patriarchy of the ekphrastic gaze. Here, Zeus is the object, not the subject of desire, all made possible by the poet.

In this video, Dr Alexandra Kingston-Reese introduces the literary term ‘ekphrasis’, explaining what it is and how it is used.

Now that you know what ekphrasis is, can you think of any poems or literary works which contain instances of ekphrasis? Let us know in the comments below.

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