For thousands of years, in what we call, rather quaintly, the Western world, people have been writing poems prompted by paintings or sculpture, and it would be strange if this were not so. After all, different though the art forms may be, they all trade in transformation—in the seizing of something that the artists know to be in large degree unseizable, and in its rendering in a medium which keeps a kind of faith with the original, but which constantly acknowledges that the thing seen or said has gone to an utterly different country. Painter or sculptor on the one hand, and poet on the other—they are at one in their launching magic carpets which, bedraggled or seamless, take the observer somewhere else. Art which declines to do this has simply lost its nerve; and when a poet decides to write in response to a visible work of art, he or she is acknowledging that the nerve has been kept, and shown.
The technical word for writing, especially poetry, that ‘renders’ a work of art is ‘ekphrasis’, which means literally a ‘speaking forth’ of the thing seen. When Homer, in the Iliad, described the shield of Achilles, or Keats collated various Grecian urns to give us a poem, or Emma Lazarus wrote her famous lines about the huddled masses and put them in the mouth of the Statue of Liberty, or Auden produced the death of Icarus from this picture and that, they were all in the ekphrastic line of business whether or not they knew it, or cared. And certainly for the last three at least a swarm of companions might be named. What John Hollander has called ‘Poems speaking to silent works of art’ must exist in their thousands, if not in their tens of thousands.
Hollander’s expression is a good one, in that the ‘speaking to’ may imply a range of ways in which poems address the artworks seen. The transaction may be intimate, and perhaps affable, so that the element of homage is prominent, and in some cases all-important—as Keats, for example, gives his imagined urn the reverence which in other circumstances he might have given to the God in whom he did not in fact believe. But the ‘speaking to’ may also have all of the latitude implied when a parliamentarian ‘speaks to’ a motion: on the floor of the House, what is offered is supposed both to be prompted by and to be at the service of that motion, but it is up to the speaker to make the case for his own relevance, and his own cogency. The ekphrastic pursuit has a wide span of ways in which it can go about its business.
As it happens, I have recently finished writing a bookful of ekphrastic poems, about 50 of them. And it occurs to me that there may be some interest in a few reflections on some particular poems produced along the way. I have rummaged around among the notions and reports provided by others who have thought about the matter, and something must have rubbed off on me in the process: but I cannot blame anyone else for what is said here, and perhaps nobody would want to be given credit, either.
Firstly, then, a poem prompted by some ‘found objects’—those which make up a hoard of silver fashionings and fragments, found at Cuerdale in England, and dating from the 9th century. Random assortment they may have been when buried for safety’s sake, but they make something much more like a work of art when displayed and photographed at the British Museum. The poem is called simply ‘Hoard’.
At the bright clip of hack-silver, the bushel
of draggled wire and burred ingot:
at glinting weights that show on burnished faces
now the storm-god’s frigid hammer,
now the southerners’ crux: at the whole slurry
of pincered buckle, punched band,
chain sleeking its riddled way to a circle—
at this, bidding for meaning, we pause.
Gone, for sure, the jarl’s tallying fingers—
amber and pelt, beeswax and slave
hung in the pan against armlet and gleaming penny:
no reek comes up from the small change,
the slugs of bullion in from Kiev or Bukhara,
the brooches long clear of their blooding.
The dust that falls with brightness from that air
might be caking itself on the moon.
‘A sitting raven starves’, they said, and lifted,
craft by craft a black wing,
riding the water as if through so much air:
who now come out of the darkness, heard
in a massy press of word on minted word,
their gold a river-fire, their blade
the saddle of the whet-stone, and the heart
known if at all by the look of a shore.
For all the variety of their styles and conventions, paintings showcase their medium, as do photographs and sculptures. Famously, or infamously, theoreticians of the visible may overstate this, with the subject of a given work supposedly dwindling away ignominiously: but such excesses are no excuse for the viewer’s failing to notice how astonishingly, for example, pigment can come up in the world on the small tract of a canvas. By the same token, a poem is among other things always showcasing the language which is both its body and its soul. This may happen in austere fashion, as if parsimony were the determining factor—as with, by now, millions of barely-breathing poems which seem ready to blanch away to the whiteness of the pages on which they occur: but great poets too have gone the purgative way, and will no doubt do so again, intent as it were on making silence audible. Still, much memorable poetry instead goes in boots and all, determined to insist on language as the offspring of abundance, and its witness.
This last course is the one adopted, for good or ill, by ‘Hoard’. One of the first things that any student of the history of the English language is likely to remember is that the language has been called a ‘word-hoard’. This archaic expression is more potent and touching than it may at first seem. The very young hoard expressions as a way of making their way in what would otherwise be a largely impenetrable intellectual and social forest: and the elderly, or those ‘stricken’ as we might as well call them, are often humiliated and infuriated by the way the words slip through their fingers. In between, everything between villainy and sanctity, between flourishing and perishing, takes much of its sense from the way in which it is characterised verbally: the word-hoard is a life-hoard.
So when to my delight I saw a picture of the Cuerdale hoard, I found a match of sorts between this precious stuff—the silver buried because prized—and language as a hoard of meaning. At one point in the poem, ‘no reek comes up from the small change, / the slugs of bullion’, I was thinking of the traditional saying that money does not stink, that its having been part of this or that transaction makes no difference to the stuff itself: but of course I did not regard that as the end of the story. It is not for nothing that we talk about ‘blood money’, and not for nothing that Judas wanted to rid himself of the silver: and ‘ethical investment’ would have no meaning if treasure had no historical trace to it. Similarly, for the thousands of years that people have been writing either satirical attacks or love-lyrics, one aura of association or another has been invoked: language carries its scars as well as its splendours.
It might be supposed that, whereas language is clearly a mutable thing, where a syllable or a tone can make a great difference, something like items of silver from the first Christian millennium would be straightforward enough. But it is not always so. There exist ancient moulds that could be used by smiths to produce on request either an image of Thor’s hammer or a version of the Christian cross. This was probably good business, but it may also be the equivalent of what happens in (more or less contemporaneous) Anglo-Saxon poetry, where, in defiance of theological coherence, the word for providence and the word for fate both find lodging. It is not only in what we say that we give ourselves away: the fingers have their own equivocations.
Several northern languages are or have been rich in what are called ‘kennings’—expressions used as code for a seemingly simpler entity, as a boat might be called a ‘wave traveller’. These can appear mere quaintnesses, but they seem to me usually to be pieces of insight—the kenning as cunning. ‘Hoard’ concludes on the assumption that this is so, and welcomes the fact that the Vikings did ‘mint’ language so that they called gold a river-fire, and the sword-blade ‘the saddle of the whet-stone’. As I see it, these famous travellers and explorers were also making their way mentally, pressing in as they pressed on. In a small way, the fact that each of the three stanzas here has a somewhat different agenda from each of the others is an attempt to keep faith with that spirit of investigation and mutation.
The second poem is a response to a little painting by Giovanni di Paolo which shows both the creation of the world and its surrounds and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (see this month’s cover). If the good news and the bad could be encompassed by the one word, it might be ‘Beginnings’, which is what the poem is called.
To the high Lord fledged with angels, Earth
nests in a roundel propped at the butts
of nothing at all. He taps it gently for soundness.
Ocean is here as required, its plenty salted
with void and fear, the mappemounde
a squinched island riding the green plain:
and air’s blue bowl, the haven of wind and lung,
where light goes bunting out from cliff
to mote or clod, and makes a pyre of darkness.
And here’s fire, done at the fling of a wrist,
mind’s trace and sun’s trail,
that sends the giddy world around, and sears it.
All to the good, as are the wheeling agents—
lion and fish, virgin, caprice
and the rest of the band. Time for home, apart
from that huddled business, amid the little wood,
a bossy angel playing keeper
to the man and woman bewildered among flowers.
In his The Geography of the Imagination, the acute and ingenious writer Guy Davenport has an essay in which he remarks, variously, It is always difficult to know how much of the world the artist has taught us to see; once we see it we are quick to suppose that it was always there. But there were no waterfalls before Turner and Wordsworth, no moonlight before Sappho. The apple has its history. For it is not things which poets give us but the way in which they exist for us, and About 2500 years ago poetry detached itself from the rituals of music and dance to go into the business of making the invisible visible to the imagination. This seeing where there is nothing to see, guided by mere words, is the most astounding achievement of the human mind.
Giovanni di Paolo’s painting might have been done as if to foreshadow such words. There it is, of course occasioned by the Biblical account, and nourished by an array of pictorial conventions: but its fusion of comedy and tragedy, of present beauty and imminent desolation, of omnipotence and impotence is something to take the breath away. The whole painting, tempera and gold on wood, is only about 47cm by 52cm, but it is as if all the harsh utterance, and all the pursued finesse, of far larger and more celebrated murals have been brought, here, into definitive focus. The imperial seraphim on the one hand and the angelic sheepdog on the other span realms of the imagination which I have not seen handled in this way elsewhere.
I suppose that there is by now a small library of writings on the iconography of the circle, and if so I know only some of its leavings: but to the amateur eye, Giovanni di Paolo is having a field day with it here. To perceive the cosmos (with its zodiacal beings thrown in) so thoroughly in terms of cycle upon cycle, with earth’s continents mapped lumpily into the centre, can have an engrossing effect, as if shape itself could speak, and design have the last word. In the painting it is of course the Creator who commands all, but it is only the uncommonly pious or (I imagine) some of the mad who feel all the time that this is so, or who can conduct their affairs by that light: for most of us, in practice, the world tends to absolutise itself. The last thing one could call Giovanni di Paolo’s painting is manichaean: but as it stands it makes the cosmos as much a claimant as a creature.
Giovanni di Paolo was active by 1417, which was two years after the battle of Agincourt: it was a time in which continental Europe could often be preoccupied with archery, for civil as well as for military purposes. The portrayal of the cosmos here looks like nothing so much as an archery roundel, and the descending Creator is impinging upon it. I don’t know whether the artist may also have had in mind the Greek philosophical notion that morally unkempt behaviour is in effect ‘bad shooting’, ineptitude with the spirit’s bow and arrow: but even if that conjecture is itself a long shot, there is a manifest pathos in the painting in the contrast between Creator as ‘supremo’ and the bungling Adam and Eve.
Paintings exist in space, poems in time: but a given poem may in effect adopt ‘stations’ in time, points at which to stand and inspect the visible as if through a spyhole or a spyglass. Different resources can be adopted to effect this—rhyme may serve it, and so may rhythm. The individual stanzas of ‘Beginnings’ are partly about that business; as I see it at least, in this case the choice of three-lined stanzas tends to enhance a sense both of brevity and of completeness at each ‘station’. The poem notices the anciently-named elements of earth, air, fire and water—a taxonomy which implies both steadiness and potential mobility. When Giovanni di Paolo makes these his own pictorially, he increases the drama of his work, in that his concentric bands attest the wheeling of the seasons, which is benign in movement from station to station, whereas the expellees, rebels against their ‘proper station’, are now being destabilised. They also share a panel in which the cosmos itself might roll over them in a kind of theological black farce. Giovanni di Paolo never heard Samuel Beckett’s Mrs Rooney, of All That Fall, say, ‘Christ what a planet!’, but seen in one way the painting invites Eve to say something of the sort.
The poem concludes with ‘the man and woman bewildered among flowers’, a line which I hoped would itself induce a little reflection. Johnson’s dictionary says that to bewilder, literally, is ‘to lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road’, and this is what the Genesis account foreshadows—as do the last words of Paradise Lost. Nowadays we take it that bewilderment is confusion of mind, as if we had been ‘driven wild’, slid into a beast’s bemusement in the face of a human challenge. That this should occur is always matter for regret: that it should take place among the emblems of beauty and vitality is confusion worse confounded. But so it often goes in life, and so it goes in Giovanni di Paolo’s painting.
Guy Davenport once again:
Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world. Ancient intuition went foraging after consistency. Religion, science, and art are alike rooted in the faith that the world is of a piece, that something is common to all its diversity, and that if we knew enough we could see and give a name to its harmony.
The qualifying footnotes which could straggle after such a claim are pretty well endless, but Davenport is right of course, right as to the historical facts of the case, and right as to aspiration. Art is, or at least participates in, that ‘attention we pay to the wholeness of the world’. This is as true of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ as it is of Edward Hicks’ portrayals of his ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, as true of Tristram Shandy as of Remembrance of Things Past. The questing and hankering mind which engenders such works may be endowed with irreducibly ironic elements, but even irony can turn its coat and display one lucidity after another, provided the circumstances are dark enough and taxing enough.
I have always supposed that the Odyssey, for example, came out of just such a stable: and when I looked at Pintoricchio’s ‘Penelope With the Suitors’, it seemed a vindication of that view. The learned argue, as is their business, about the personnel in this fresco—crucially, as to whether the last man coming into Penelope’s weaving-room is another of the string of vexatious suitors, or is Odysseus himself. I plumped for the second view—hence the poem’s title, ‘The Return’.
To hang like a bat from the great fig tree until dusk,
your gulped ship whirling below you:
to bemuse into blindness the hulking son of Poseidon,
his anger an ocean, his mind a cliff:
to grow wild at the mast as the Sirens, rapt in their song,
resolved it chord by chord in death—
these were your ways, hunter and liar and yearner,
the rockfast acres winding you home.
So come in, gaunt for a while, your beggar’s rig
our truest costume, whatever you think,
to Penelope’s room, all yarn and frame and shuttle
and textile plied and picked apart:
come in, ignoring the window’s magical staging
of Circe and swine and riptide ship,
to the cat with an air of sitting her portrait, the bird
waltzing a strut, and the maid, and your wife.
As for these others, three from the pack of her suitors,
something will come to you. Falcon at wrist,
hand in a pucker of pleading, a dancer’s footwork—
they are here for the gamble. And soon will know,
when the harper falters and elegant boasting wanes
and the bright blood chills in its course,
a bronze instruction from the swag of arrows,
a crazed song from the heavy bow.
By now, whether for painter or for poet, there is no beginning and no ending where Odysseus is concerned: even his transmutation into the Latinate ‘Ulysses’ is in effect a tribute to his main feature, as far as Homer is concerned, which is his commanding mutability—he is the human equivalent of the god Proteus, for whom shape-shifting is the very name of his particular game. From the countless redactions of Odysseus-in-action—they would include everything from the Fathers of the Church seeing him as an emblem of Christ the quester to the 20th-century versions provided by Joyce, Kazantzakis and
Walcott—Pintoricchio has underlined the version of him as the one who returns.
Etymologically, ‘nostalgia’ means ‘the ache to be making the journey home’, and this prepotent nostalgia comes to determine everything in the Odyssey. But the tragic irony of Homer’s poem lies in three facts: that Odysseus declines the good-faith offer of immortality made him by a goddess who wants him to stay, and as a result is to be at the last one of the ‘homeless’ shades after death; that the
Ithaca of his memory and desire has in his absence been polluted and in large degree alienated; and that Odysseus has been told that he will in any event have to rove again, and must do so into a milieu in which his sailor’s oar will be unintelligible. It is, to put it mildly, a rich brew.
Like Giovanni di Paolo dealing simultaneously with creation and expulsion, Pintoricchio freeze-frames earlier stages of Odysseus’ fortunes while he displays a graphic moment of encounter between Penelope the bond-keeper and the would-be-violating suitors. The ‘old days’ of Odysseus under threats to his life, days of which Penelope as yet knows nothing, are being recapitulated outside her window, through which we the viewers can look only on condition that we take account of her weaving-frame, that emblem at once of coherence and of vulnerability. The chequered design of the flooring leads the eye of the viewer towards the sighted port and beyond, but it is also a stylised version of a maze to be negotiated—the world as chessboard—under the tensional conditions of which chess, the war game, is so eloquent an expression.
‘The Return’ is not short of nouns, some of them—‘mast, swine, beggar, harper, song’—with claims on spontaneous attention. But it seems to me that the spirit of the whole is determined in large degree by the first couple of words, put as we say ‘in the infinitive’, ‘To hang’. I am of that party which believes that much of the vitality of poetry—and of prose, come to that—lies in its deployment of grammar and of syntax. These mediate information, but they also mediate energy: they are the vectors of feeling as well as of insight. So, ‘To hang’, here, is not only a way of putting down a key piece in the little jigsaw of the sentence: it implies as well a spirit of suspense which, all going well, will inform the whole poem.
I did not consciously design it in this way, but as things turned out the three stanzas accommodate the past, the present, and the future. So, as I see it, does Pintoricchio’s painting. Any reader of the Odyssey, seeing the bow and the quiverful of arrows hanging on the wall behind Penelope, may think of the ways in which Homer blends allusions to poetry-making, weaving, archery, and Odyssean ingenuity: and
certainly will think of that moment, perhaps the most famously dramatic in all of Western secular writing, at which Odysseus finally bends the bow.
Others must judge whether it is warranted, but I confess to being fascinated by that Latin form known as the ‘praeteritio’—the verbal strategy by which one emphasises something allegedly unsaid, the ‘I pass over in silence this, that, and the other’ gambit. It seems to me that this blend of conceding and withholding corresponds to virtually everything of moment in life, the best of things and the worst of things. Life does not usually so much divulge significances or deny them outright, as insinuate and intimate, whether agreeably or disagreeably. It is perfectly proper for an artist in whatever medium to go for attestation, bright or dark: but much can be done better by inducing cross-veined tensions, as happens with a bow, a harp, or a strung fabric; a text is a kind of textile, and is often shown off to best effect when that is remembered—hence, for example, the last four lines of the second stanza of ‘The Return’.
Joseph Brodsky used to say, when his poetry was admired, that the poems were all waiting there in the Russian language to be discovered, to which the appropriate reply is that they were and they weren’t. For Pintoricchio—Bernardino di Betto to his mother—his ‘Penelope with the Suitors’ was and wasn’t waiting in the Odyssey, was and wasn’t on the wall soon to be frescoed. How it was, and how it wasn’t, may really have been what he was trying to find out. And perhaps it was that way with the poem, too.
Peter Steele sj has a personal chair at the University of Melbourne