WRIT 5001 001: EKPHRASTIC POETRY                                   Instructor: Amy England

FALL 2014                                                                                         aengland@speedingplanet.net

Ekphrasis is a strange thing, both extremely general and extremely specific. Most generally it can mean any translation from one medium into another–Telemann’s “Don Quixote Suite” could be considered ekphrasis. Historically it has referred to an obscure type of decorative aside in epic poetry where the characters and/or the narrator pause to consider a work of art that illuminates the material of the epic in some way–Achilles’ shield, which seems to depict the whole world of the Iliad, or the murals at the temple of Venus in the Aeneid, where Aeneas sees a summary of his own previous adventures. In our day it usually means text or language about visual art, and can refer equally to prose, poetry, art criticism, etc. For the purposes of this class, we’re going to restrict our inquiry mostly to poetry, the historical origin of ekphrasis, and we’re going to spend most of the semester using James Heffernan’s definition: ekphrasis is linguistic representation of visual representation. The last few weeks we’ll open the course up to consider also poetry that uses pictorial or painterly technique and subject matter. The readings will not only function as a thumbnail of poetic history, but they will give us the means to explore two very interesting constellations of questions: How do we look at art? What do we bring to bear on the act of looking? How do we translate that act into language and poetic form? And: How do we inhabit museums? How do museums reveal our relationship to art, our theories about what it is for? Many ekphrastic poems, it turns out, function as statements of poetics, so ekphrasis is an entry into more general ideas about what art is for and what it does.

Required texts to buy:

Ashbery, John: Girls on the Run (copies trickling into bookstore, might need to order own copy–used is fine)

Costello, Bonnie: Planets on Tables, Cornell UP (the bookstore seems to have this one)

Paz, Octavio: Sunstone (copies trickling into bookstore, might need to order own copy–used is fine)

Simic, Charles: Dime Store Alchemy


Coover, Robert: Grand Hotels

To pass the class, you must do all seven of the written assignments, participate in discussions and workshops in a way that reveals your thoughtful preparation and reading of the material, and miss no more than 2 classes, including late registration into the class, and early departures and late arrivals of more than fifteen minutes. Although I don’t use it often, I reserve the right to ask a student to do work again if I don’t think it fulfills the assignment.

The big challenge in assembling this class has been in finding suitable materials in print. The schedule is subject to change if materials prove unavailable.


Class, date                  Assignments

I          Aug. 29th        Intro; excerpt from Transforming Visions (posted). Trip to museum: how is reading the text different in the presence of the painting? If the painting was already familiar to you, how did the poem change your impression of it? Notes for assignment: a section poem using as many possible approaches to a painting as you can think of: the artist, the model, the subject, the painting, its materials, the original audience or owner, the purchaser, the restorer, etc.


II         Sept. 5th          Workshop on section poems. Exercise in notional ekphrasis. Discuss leftover readings if time.



III        Sept. 12th        Historical background: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Browning (posted).


IV       Sept. 19th        Workshop: poem engaged in the act of looking; the social facts around the act of looking, art as access to transcendence, or the painting as entry into history.


V         Sept. 26th        20th century: poems by Williams, Auden, Moore, Bishop, et. al.


VI       Oct. 2nd           Workshop: poem as art criticism or criticism or statement of poetics, the poetry of the museum. Exercise in invented art gallery–bring some object.


VII      Oct. 10th         Paz (book), Bishop (posted), Giscombe excerpt (posted)


VIII     Oct. 17th         Poem engaged in visual depiction of time or space: calendar, blue print, diagram, map, a molecular diagram, the periodic table, etc.


IX       Oct. 24th         Ashbery, Girls on the Run (book) and “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (posted). Possible field trip to Roger Brown house if there is interest.



X         Oct. 31st          Workshop: Chose a work of art that demands a poem in a newly constructed language: an invented vocabulary, a new syntax, an invented system of verb tenses, etc., and write the poem about it accordingly. Exercise in visual translation using Kandinsky’s “Graceful Ascent”, Klee’s “Tree Nursery”:



XI       Nov. 7th          Simic (book) and a few pieces from Convergence of Birds (posted). Optional: Coover (book). Why do you think Cornell exerts such an extreme fascination over writers and poets? What about his work is especially evocative of poetry?


XII      Nov. 14th        Cornell poem: reading at museum. Exercise in combining poem and visual art.


XIII     Nov. 21st         Costello (book), optional: Davenport essay (posted).




XIV    Dec. 12th         Poem as still life.