Art into poetry

For more than a couple of thousand years, poets have been embedding works of art in their poems. The ancient Greek word, recently revived, for this kind of behaviour is ekphrasis, which means literally ‘speaking forth’, the idea being that the poem puts to language, and thus in a sense publishes in a new way, the painting or sculpture or other artwork which has existed previously in its own right and on its own terms.
The strategy adopted by the poet may be that of a describer or annotator; or it may be, for example, that of someone giving voice to a figure in a painting; or the artwork may be addressed in one fashion or another as though it were alive; and a number of other strategies are available.

You will quickly recognise, too, that the work of art being ‘spoken forth’ need not have prior existence after all: Homer would not have been chastened if someone had established for him that there had never been an Achilles, let alone his marvel of a shield: and Virgil, contriving his ‘shield of Aeneas’, would probably have rejoiced the more at the news that his emulation of Homer had no foundation other than their joint genius.

Happily, in the last couple of centuries, many ekphrastic poems have been written, and more recently much good academic reflection on the art has taken place. In this article I hope to contribute in a small way to the discussion, encouraged to a degree by the fact that I have already published a book of ekphrastic poems myself, and have recently completed the text of another.

The Australian poet Peter Porter, who has been based for most of his life in London (though with frequent visits home), often brings to Australian scenes, practices and holdings a starker gaze than is customary in his native country—starker, and more tenaciously reflective. The poem below, from Porter’s Collected Poems Vol II (Oxford University Press, 1999) is called ‘Basta Sangue’ (Enough Blood).

In the National Gallery of Victoria
Is a nineteenth-century genre painting
Showing a ewe on guard beside the body
Of her dead lamb while all around her sin-
black crows stand silent in the snow. Each time
I pass the picture I find I shudder twice—
Once because good taste is now endemic
And I cannot let the sentimental go
Unsneered at—I have gone to the trouble of
Acquiring words like ‘genre’ and will call
Them to my aid—but secondly I know
I’ve been that ewe and soon will be that lamb,
That there’s no way to love mankind but on
The improvised co-ordinates of death,
Death which rules the snow, the crows, the sheep,
The painter and the drifting connoisseur.

Enough of blood, but Abraham’s raised knife
Is seldom halted and any place for God
(Even if he didn’t give the orders)
Will be outside the frame. A melody
Can gong the executioner’s axe awake,
A painting take away our appetite
For lunch, and mother-love still walk all night
To lull a baby quiet. Whatever gathers
Overleaf is murderous: we move
On through the gallery praising Art which keeps
The types of horror constant so that we
May go about our business and forget.

The work in question, which is called Anguish, was painted in about 1878 by the Danish-born artist A.F.A. Schenck, who spent most of his career in France before his death in 1901.

A recent catalogue entry by Laurie Benson on Anguish (in Nineteenth Century Painting and Sculpture in the International Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, edited by Ted Gott), says in part:

In this painting, Schenck has given his distraught ewe an expression suggestive of despair mingled with stoic determination. Recognising these decidedly human responses, the viewer might be expected to identify immediately with the animal’s grim predicament. The ewe’s bravery in the face of the threat posed by the murderous circle of crows is perhaps, however, somewhat overstated in her defiant stance above the bleeding lamb. There is little subtlety evident in this work.

All of this may be so, but a poet may write at least half of the terms of any covenant with a painting, and this seems to be so with Porter’s poem. Take for instance the form of ‘Basta Sangue’. The whole consists of one stanza of 16 lines, followed by another of 12 lines, each of them a pentameter, with a hinge of argument between the two stanzas. It is as if what we have here is a sonnet in slow motion, in which the air of inevitability which that form usually courts is allowed to deepen and darken in its own time. One of the things that has been fortified in Porter’s practice as a poet by W.H. Auden’s example is a readiness to remodel traditional forms so that they go by new ways to old ends, and I think that this is a case in point. It is not a move which could be generated by the painting, but it pitches attention more acutely upon the painting than the catalogue entry would suggest was likely.

And then there is the title. ‘Basta Sangue’ is taken from Puccini’s opera Turandot, at the moment when the old Emperor cries out to the Unknown Prince: ‘An atrocious oath forces me/to keep faith with the grim pact. And the holy/sceptre that I clasp streams with/blood! Enough of blood!/Young man, go!’ The Prince does not co-operate, and there is more blood to be shed in the opera, though it is not his but that of the little slave girl Liu, who first is tortured and then stabs herself to death. Another of Porter’s poems, ‘Non Piangere, Liu’, also takes its title from Turandot in which, as Bruce Bennett reported in his book Spirit in Exile: Peter Porter and his Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1991), Porter heard a ‘“massive directness” in confronting difficult emotions’ and ‘Non Piangere, Liu’ is at least in part about the impingement on Porter of his own wife’s suicide.

Porter’s first love, as he has often said, is not poetry but music, about which he knows an enormous amount and has often written, not least about opera. And I would suggest that in the case of ‘Basta Sangue’ (as in many other instances) his title is not simply a resonant verbal fragment but is an adducing of the imaginative authority of opera as such—its largeness of reach, its deliberate intensification of emotion, its partial framing of experiences which still resist enclosure. And I believe that this reference to Turandot (as much collusion as allusion), coupled with that dramatic retardation of a sonnet’s natural movement which I mentioned a little earlier, is a crucial determinant of the poem’s nature. When Porter writes ‘about’ a painting, it is as if the enterprise of poetry itself is re-envisaged each time. He has for a long time now been a virtuoso, but more often than not he writes as though surprised, even disconcerted, at the fact that, life being what it is, anything at all can get said properly.

This is so even though, as I have tried to establish elsewhere, he is also a poet singularly gifted in the deployment of ‘sententiae’—what we might call ‘distillations of truth’. His repertoire includes, prominently, an aphoristic style, but for him an aphorism is as often a plank out into the unsayable as it is the edging of a plot which has been levelled out. In ‘Basta Sangue’, if one remembers the fact that his wife’s death left him with their children, two girls, to bring up, the line ‘I’ve been that ewe and soon will be that lamb’ is straightforward, if terrible: but the succeeding ‘[That] there’s no way to love mankind but on/The improvised co-ordinates of death,/Death which rules the snow, the crows, the sheep,/The painter and the drifting connoisseur’ seems to me of a different order of mystery.

As, in French cuisine, a bouquet garni of parsley, bay leaf and thyme is a customary resource, Porter’s poetry often looks to a tincture of four elements, namely God, Art, Love and Death, all of which are to be found in ‘Basta Sangue’. Of course each of these is a traditional ‘topic’, a traditional claimant upon attention, in poetry, as Porter knows better than most. But he writes as though sensing that they both wear well and stay formidable—whether or not they are welcome. So, in this poem, while each stanza has its own component both of self-knowledge and of world-weariness, each too is in effect overtaken by refreshed insight, little comfort though that may bring.

I had wondered about the words ‘Whatever gathers/Overleaf is murderous’, but as soon as one does grant the potency of the ‘Death which rules ...’ of a few lines earlier, one is sobered into agreement. It is possible, too, that the fact that Puccini could not finish Turandot, combined with the fact that, as he said, ‘I have the great weakness of being able to compose only when my public executioners come on the scene’ broods tacitly over this poem. Porter has a poem, its title borrowed from Auden, which is called ‘And No Help Came’; it might be the name of many of his poems—as, of course, of Schenck’s painting.

Forty years ago the same Auden published a book called The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (Faber & Faber, 1975), a brilliant, quirky and often wise set of reflections on prose, poetry and music—an enduring favourite so far as I am concerned. There is an epigraph to the whole, Nietzsche’s dictum ‘We have Art in order that we may not perish from Truth’, a saying which, as often with that Wild Man of the Mind’s Woods, can be as haunting as it is maddening.

When Porter concludes ‘Basta Sangue’ by saying ‘ ... we move/On through the gallery praising Art which keeps/The types of horror constant so that we/May go about our business and forget’, he may be revising this site: certainly, in any case, he gives us in this poem, as in many others, an example of what Nietzsche called ‘unruly thoughts’, upheaval rising beneath a disciplined surface—the sort of thing we associate with the tragic spirit. And that may be the best way to characterise the spirit of ‘Basta Sangue’. 

Peter Steele sj has a personal chair at the University of Melbourne, and has published a book of ekphrastic poems, Plenty: Art into Poetry (Macmillan, 2003). This article is an edited extract from his paper Encountering the Image: Art into Poetry, delivered at the St Mary’s College and Newman College Academic Centre, University of Melbourne, in May.


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