Gillian Rose Graphic

The answer is no. But then the answer could be yes.



Gillian Rose GraphicIt depends whether a review can be considered an art form. It depends what’s meant by ‘ekphrastic’.


I’ve never warmed to the term ‘ekphrastic’, but then I suspect all complex literary terms. Too quickly, they become the privileged jargon of Those In The Know (TITKs). Poems termed ‘ekphrastic’ start to sound special.


There is no univeral agreement about the meaning of the term. Ekphrastic is plastic: it can be moulded to suit the purpose of the user. It can simply mean “a literary description or, or commentary on, a visual work of art” (Merriam Webster). According to this definition a review might even be ekphrastic, provided the poem under scrutiny were conceived of as visual works of art, and reviews as verbal.


The draws on another popular definition of ekphrasis as “the graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art”. The Ancient Greeks have a lot to answer for. For them, ekphrasis was part of the literary training known as ‘rhetoric’, an art in itself, and a dramatic one. The derivation (though it doesn’t help us much) is from the Greek ‘ek’ and ‘phrasis’, meaning ‘out’ and speak’. The verb ekphrazein is to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name. (It cheers me to know ekphrasis can be spelled with a c.  Ecphrasis looks less intimidating, though also – to me – wrong.)


Wikipedia (like a number of other sites) lists the famous instances of ekphrastic writing, from ancient to modern. These include Homer’s extensive description of the shield of Achilles, Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and a Shakespearean description of paintings in Cymbeline. I don’t know Cymbeline well enough to remember where the reference to paintings comes. But the other two . . .  Keats may have been thinking about one particular urn, but it’s more likely he invented an urn image to suit his poem. Homer is unlikely to have seen Achilles’ shield, other than in his imagination. These are responses to imaginary works of art, not actual ones.


But Marjorie Munsterberg (2008-2009) says “For most readers of famous Greek and Latin texts, it did not matter whether the subject was actual or imagined. The texts were studied to form habits of thinking and writing, not as art historical evidence.”


It seems to matter to us these days that the subjects should be actual. The Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award (Victoria, Australia) 2013 posts the artworks that are to be responded to, and later posts the images beside the winning poems. Some of these are amazing: well worth a look. A number of art galleries (The Scottish National Portrait Gallery does this annually) run competitions for poets to write in response to paintings. During the Titian exhibition in 2012, the National Gallery in London launched the ‘Tweet Titian’ challenge: to write a poem inspired by Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’, ‘The Death of Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’ in 140 characters or less (Jacqueline Saphra won). Ekphrasis joins Twitter.


Andrew Carruthers, writing in the Cordite Poetry Review in May 2012, comes up with a form of poetry that has escaped me up to now: “poetic art” – that is to say, not the art of poetry but “poetry which is not simply poetry but also art, and not even just art; a practice which attempts a ‘generalised ekphrasis’ across the boundaries between mediums while considering its main business to be that of poetry.”


It is very difficult. What is poetry?


Please don’t answer that, not even in a comments box. People are always defining poetry and it doesn’t help. The significant factor is that one considers oneself to be about the business of making whatever one considers poetry to be. And our simplest understanding of poetry is something significant made of words. Hold that thought.


Carruthers talks about what he describes as xerographesis, a form of art work more simply termed ‘the photocopy poem’. But his discussion is enormously complex and simplification from me won’t help here. The visual works themselves look (follow the Cordite Poetry Review link above to see them) surprisingly easy to respond to, given the complexity of describing what they might be doing in words.


Carruthers goes on to rehearse the way other art forms have poached the concept of ekphrasis: musicians who respond to paintings or sculpture, painters who respond to music etc. He quotes James Heffernan’s definition of ekphrasis as “the verbal representation of visual representation” (1993),  a delightfully simple but somewhat problematic statement (it doesn’t mention art at all). He (Carruthers) then applies a mathematical metaphor:


reduce it to its common denominators, and then factor in the hybridity of interartistic exchange in ekphrastic practices, you get ‘the representation of representation.’ Before each representation you might substitute any of the multiple types of art: ‘sculptural representation of musical representation,’ ‘painterly representation of verbal representation,’ and so on.


I have a bit of a problem with syllables. Once words with large numbers of syllables multiply, I find it difficult to follow the meaning. Put “interartistic” in the same phrase as “ekphrastic practice” and one of my eyebrows starts to misbehave. Still, I am quite attracted to “the representation of representation”.


Although this blog is already too long, I can’t conclude without mentioning Ryan Welsh’s essay on ekphrasis (2007) in the University of Chicago Theories of Media glossary. Thinking about just one word can be enormously educational.


Welsh says (reassuringly): “Few pieces of media jargon have as long a history or as considerable an evolution as ekphrasis”. While bearing in mind Humpty Dumpty’s celebrated assertion (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”), it is worth reading on: Welsh says a number of illuminating and entertaining things.


For example, he quotes art critic Peter Wagner (1996) – “We should drop, once and for all, the tacit assumption that the verbal representation of an image must be “literary” to qualify as ekphrasis – in our age of the arbitrary sign it has become extremely difficult to distinguish between ‘literary’ and ‘critical’ text.”


Ha! Indeed it has. Certain kinds of review may be more literary than critical. They may be one form responding to another: they may even be the representation of representation. On the other hand, “Wagner is mindful of the need to broaden and restrict the usage of the word ekphrasis.” Quite. The TITK fraternity need boundaries to stay defined, though type designers see word as image, which really throws a spanner in the works.


I like that W.J.T. Mitchell (1994) proposes a three-part understanding of ekphrasis:


1. ekphrastic indifference
2. ekphrastic hope
3. ekphrastic fear


Bear hug, a graphic by Gillian RoseI shan’t attempt to explain these steps in the evolution of the understanding of the word ‘ekphrastic’ because I am pretty sure your (and my) use of the word has now regressed to an earlier state where our indifference is more than merely ekphrastic. Besides, “If ekphrasis were to become a complete and perfect intermediary between the two sides of the word/image dialectic”, as Mitchell points out, “the entire paradigm would crumble.”


I will make a couple of unsupported assertions anyway and sod the paradigm. I think a poetry review could be one art form responding to another. It need not necessarily comment on perceived strengths or weaknesses, because reviews can do all sorts of things, not least when they think of themselves as art forms (though this has risks of its own).


Most poetry reviews are written by poets. A review might be written with the same precision and attention that a poet pays to her poem in construction. It could be a piece of ekphrastic art: a creation in its own right, a unique response to something worth responding to.


  1. I think it’s an awful word, and you were quite right in saying towards the end of your piece that my use of the word regressed during the course of what you had written. During a concert last night I found myself wondering what the term is for a poem that is inspired by, or commenting on, a piece of music? why this singling out of the visual arts?

  2. ekphrasis should join eponymous in the bin – the one for unnecessary words which Some People use to make Other People feel ignorant and small. Bin it! Ban it! I feel strongly about this!

  3. I really like your “unsupported assertions” at the end of the post. They make sense to me. I am going to keep what you said in mind when I write my next poetry review 😀

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