Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ekphrasic Illumination

I came across an old review of Serious Pink by Sharon Dolin haphazardly, one of those internet divigations that captures so much of my time. I was looking for McSweeney's sestinas. I found the site, then found a sestina by Dolin that I'd previously mentioned here. Or somewhere. Going from McSweeney's to Dolin by way of Google, I saw the term "ekphrasic" combined with Dolin and her poetry and then read the review, written by Eileen Tabios : Jacket 23 - Eileen Tabios reviews "Serious Pink", by Sharon Dolin

So having arrived here, I read the review quickly, in a growing kind of delight. And in a typical mixing of theory and application, I found in the Tabois review an explanation for chaos theory, at least my one dimensional explanation began to poke its shiny head out and then hide just as quickly.

Tabois says: "I consider the ekphrastic poem'’s path of transcending its original impetus to be not that different from how a poem often leaves the poet'’s initial intention." From this statement, I want to draw my connection for chaos theory, as it is applied to creativity ala Gabriele Rico. One stimulus (art) carries within it random signals, impetus, reminders, inspiration, connections and other imprints upon the viewer/writer. The writer transcribes and transcends the concrete image and the result is another creation: the ekphrasic poem, quite unlike it stimulus and yet intimately tied, so much so that the poem would not exist without the art.

But then I wonder: how different is ekphrasic poetry from poetry of any other motivation? Poetry needs stimulation to exist. That stimulation might be a personal exchange, an obersvation or Kahlo's Two Fridas, as I have chosen. What is the difference in motivation? Why is the ekphrasic poem called apart from its neighbors and the ethics of its origin questioned? Is the writer any less a creator because the stuimulus is external?

Tabois actially addresses this question in a roundabout way. She says:
It seems to me that ekphrasis must fail its intention in the way that a poem becomes its own entity without necessarily adhering to the poet’s original thought. Part of poetry-making, to me, is allowing oneself the freedom to free-associate during the process itself, because a poem is not necessarily pre-determined at the outset of its creation.
So she gives a tiny consensus on the significance of stimulus: it initiates the writer's imagination. Stimulus works like a key turning the ignition. But the object providing the stimulation (art, intimacy, emotion) does not drive the poem home. What gets the poem from A to B and ultimately Z is the poet. But what part of the poet? It's the admixture of dreams, skills, vocabuulary, experience, knowledge, humor and all the worlds seen, heard, felt, tasted, or otherwise sensed by that writer.This compound gets agitated by stimulus and out of a wild hybrid of person and environment, produces a poem.


Lyle Daggett said...

On the other hand, when I start working on a poem, I normally have the feeling, it feels, like the poem is, in some sense, pre-determined. It feels, to me, almost as a distinct geometric structure. (I remember Olga Broumas commenting once that poems are three-dimensional objects.) And so writing the poem becomes, in part, an act of trying to discern the geometric shape.

(Not necessarily a symmetrical shape. In fact the poems, and all creative work, that I like best, are mostly non-symmetrical.)

There's been incredible discussion in the past 20 years or more about the notion of letting randomness, accident, coincidence, improvisation, etc., into poems. For me, the most important reason to write is to tell the truth, whatever I can discern or make of the truth, however firm or hesitant, lasting or transitory, multiple or provisional.

I'm not talking here about writing just literal fact -- the truth usually includes facts but isn't necessarily limited to them.

While it may be an illusion (or an arbitrary decision) that anything in a poem is pre-determined, I find that this is nevertheless the way I need to approach a poem in order to write it. If a poem I'm writing gets too much of randomness into it, too much inadvertent or accidental, too much improvised, I find I start to lose the poem, I lose the thread of it. I start to feel that I can't trust the Muse (for lack of a better word).

Fascinating post, Ann. -- Thanks also for your comment in my blog. I'll be very interested in what you dig up in the library grab. I'll watch for it here.

Ann said...


Love those differences.

My experience in poem-making is often that a few lines will arrive. If they feel pregnant - if there's a solid substance behind those lines - then I'll commit them to paper. But that is the extent of predetermination for me with the exception of planning end words with sestinas or other craft issues as opposed to substance issues.

So I begin with just a few lines to tease me, sometimes only an image that connects to an emotion. Once I'm in motion, then the poem expresses itself. The scattering of visual and sensory and conceptual possibilities come together, become coherent and often, are emotionally expressive.

This is one way that I use the term "chaos" to describe the poem-making event. Out of the random possibilities, there's a magnetic cohesion that "comes together" sometimes successfully, as a poem.