Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts

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ELIZABETH BERGMANN LOIZEAUX. Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts. Pp. xii + 260. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. £48
In her introduction to Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts, Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeux suggests that ‘ekphrasis, broadly considered, may be the paradigmatic act in a culture of images.’ (p.28) While ekphrasis, understood as poetry written in response to notional or actual works of visual art, has a literary history which dates to Classical Greece (Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield is generally cited as the earliest example), the proliferation of Anglo-American poems about paintings, sculpture, photographs, films and digital media in the twentieth century has been remarkable. That ours is a global culture replete with visual images perhaps makes this inevitable: the electronic revolution has meant that poets, like everyone else, are exposed to reproductions of countless images every day, and they are bound to incorporate these encounters into their writing. Yet as Loizeaux argues in what is surely one of the most incisive studies of ekphrasis in recent years, such acts are culturally paradigmatic in ways that extend beyond predictable response to a media-saturated environment into an ethics of looking and envoicing that is crucial both to the ekphrastic and the human situation.

While she acknowledges that the number of ekphrases written in the twentieth century has much to do with what W.J.T Mitchell identified as ‘”the pictorial turn” from a culture of words into a culture of images’ (p.3), Loizeaux also recognises that ‘the prevalence of ekphrasis indicates continuous and ongoing efforts across the century to break open the possibilities of lyric poetry.’ (p.9) Building on Mitchell’s seminal theorization of the essentially social nature of ekphrasis, Loizeaux emphasises how the genre’s openness to polyvocality makes it ‘attractive to a postmodernism alive to the multiplicity of the lyric subject and to racial, ethnic and gender differences.’ (p.10) Her challenge to established views of the contest between verbal and visual, word and image, derives from her attention to how writers themselves (she cites Gertrude Stein, Ntozake Shange, Cole Swensen and W.S. Graham) describe the ekphrastic relationship: they speak of ‘familiarity,’ ‘friendship’, ‘a shared world,’ ‘sympathetic company.’ (p.15) Without discounting the productivity of difference and opposition, and deeply aware of the importance of context (‘The poet’s response to a work of art is born of/into a context alive with other responses’ (p.17)), Loizeaux’s unique aim is to ‘broaden the range of relations we see at play in ekphrasis and to recognize the intertwined and various nature of the ekphrastic response, how contest melts into (and can be part of) friendship, how feelings deepen and shift focus in the course of engagement, how a work of art that promises refuge from the world ends up sending the poet back out into it.’ (p.16)

This critical sensitivity to what might be called a dynamics of confluence allows Loizeaux to explore, in six discursive yet interrelated chapters, how poet, painting and reader/viewer interact to release the poem into the social/political/cultural arena. As the author herself indicates, although the first chapter considers Yeats vis a vis the Irish art gallery and the final one examines Rita Dove’s experimentation with the poetic volume as museum, the chapters are not arranged chronologically; rather, they chart a range of ekphrastic encounters with specific sites and ‘others’ through which writers have attempted to negotiate and represent works of visual art. The initial chapter considers the shaping influence of Yeats’s ‘The Municipal Gallery Re-visited’ and, over 50 years later, Paul Durcan’s Crazy About Women on Irish identity, in particular the culture of the public art gallery. Its probing of issues relating to private versus public spaces and lives lays the groundwork for the ensuing astute and provocative analysis of the ethics of standing by and looking during periods of violence as prompted by Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts.’

At her most engaging and articulate, Loizeaux in chapter three discusses the feminist ekphrases of Marianne Moore and Adrienne Rich. Here she addresses questions of gender and genre, and shows how both poets have rewritten, albeit differently, conventional coding of the word as male and active, the image as female and passive. Chapters four and five extend our appreciation of ekphrasis into the area of collaboration and conversation between poets and visual artists, in specific Anne Sexton and W.D. Snodgrass’ distinct responses to Van Gogh, and Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin’s creation of Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama. The latter offers a detailed, erudite analysis of the collaborative process which will be of especial value to Hughes scholars while at the same time providing fresh insights into how ekphrasis may be sourced in poet/artist dialogue and how the interplay of word and image can be worked to dramatise thematics.

Each of these chapters contains informed and insightful readings of individual poems, for example when the author writes of Paul Durcan’s ‘Bishop of Derry with His Granddaughter,’ ‘From a vantage point just outside the picture frame (like us and Durcan), the clerical speaker[…]views his bishop friend in a funhouse of viewers viewing viewers viewed’ (p.54) or of Anne Sexton’s ‘Starry Night,’ ‘when Sexton takes on the voice of Van Gogh she suggests one of the prime motives for ekphrasis in the twentieth century – the perception of commonality among artists maginalized by modern society, the desire to be with, perhaps for a while to be, a fellow artist whose life and work fall similarly outside the “normal” life of the town.’ (p.123)

That desire and ability of the poet to move into the position of the other is a concern which informs much of the discussion across Loizeux’s book. As she outlines it in the introduction, ekphrastic prosopopoeia can be seen as ‘the most hegemonic of moves (language taking over the image, inhabiting it) or as the most altruistic (language liberating the frozen image to tell its story).’ (p.24) The ethical question at stake here is, of course, ‘whether and how one can speak for others’ (p.24), and while Loizeaux approaches the debate from a variety of angles it is in her final chapter on the African American poet Rita Dove’s collection Museum that she enters into it in ways that are strikingly new and important. Acknowledging Dove’s awareness that no writer can authentically speak another’s subjectivity as well as the poet’s legitimate need to address works of art, Loizeaux rightly recognises that Dove is a poet who knows ‘the necessity of knowing the others within us as much as those without.’ (p.182) Her reading of Dove’s complex poem ‘Agosta the Pigeon-Breasted Man and Rasha the Black Dove’ is a fine example of her critical skill in assessing how the dynamics of ekphrasis can effectively problematise issues of race, gender and power politics.

Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts is an accomplished study of what is undoubtedly a key aspect of modern and postmodern poetics and poetic practice. The diversity of ekphrastic styles and approaches considered in the course of Loizeaux’s discussion is stimulating, the range of her scholarship impressive. In short, this book makes a major contribution to the growing body of scholarship on poetic ekphrasis.

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