Guest Blog: 10 Examples of Ekphrasis in Contemporary Literature

I don’t understand everything here, but I like it.

Interesting Literature

By Patrick Smith, Bainbridge State College, Georgia

Writers have drawn on vivid descriptions of the visual arts to enhance their work since Homer famously used 130 lines to describe the chronicle emblazoned on Achilles’s shield in Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad more than 2,500 years ago.

Shield1Ekphrasis—the representation in language of a work of art—acts as an organizing principle in poetry and fiction, making explicit the connection between art, storytelling, and life. Acting in multiple roles in contemporary literature—both as an interpretive key to a work of art (either real or imagined) and as a descriptive device that enriches narrative and explores the relationship between writer and audience—those descriptions create, Michael Trussler writes, “a kind of ontological miniature that signals a world beyond the confines of the text.”

Although ekphrasis hasn’t been explored to the extent it deserves in contemporary literature, plenty of writers view art as a grounding point…

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9 Responses to Guest Blog: 10 Examples of Ekphrasis in Contemporary Literature

  1. kelbel75 says:

    never heard of this type of poetry before, but I’m wondering why it has it’s own distinctive label? poetry always describes something, makes a story out of something. how is looking at a painting and waxing lyrical about it any different from looking out your window and giving a detailed description of what you see? maybe I can’t wrap my brain around it because that’s how I view paintings myself, I didn’t realize I was creating poetry in my critiques, that’s just the way I talk 😉

    • Servetus says:

      Because when you describe a work of art, you’re describing a symbolic, intentionally created object, one created by someone else for purposes alien to your description of it. For instance, the Shield of Achilles description, the most famous example cited at the beginning, depicts the values and summit of culture of the Achaeans. Aside from the moving quality of the description, which is a reinscription of Achaean values by the author, there is an irony to the fact that it’s Achilles who’s bearing it, because of his ambiguous relationship with Achaean values. Some critics of the work say that the passage is supposed to be a cosmology, in which the author uses the object to create a notion of the world. So it’s a way for an author to take a position, via description, on a symbolic or value statement created by someone else, via aesthetics (as opposed to exposition, say), and create his own value statement (with the complication of aesthetics, because aesthetics don’t always conform easily to ideology). That’s why it’s not the same as describing (for instance) a landscape.

      • kelbel75 says:

        my example of the landscape was trite, I know. at it’s heart though, this just seems to me like a particular form of critiquing. I don’t mean to devalue the poetry of the description, not at all, it just surprised me that it is labeled as it’s own style. does this only apply to paintings or are there others used for sculptures, literature and the like as well?

      • Servetus says:

        Different rhetorical and aesthetic techniques work differently / have different effects on the audience. By studying the differences between different techniques, we learn how to mobilize them ourselves for effect. That’s the purpose of studying any kind of communication — to learn how / when to do / not to do it yourself. In the case of Greek rhetoric, in particular, the Greeks created a huge taxonomy of rhetoric that helps us explain when an argument is logical and on what terms, when it moves us and why. Doing this helps us improve our argumentation. Think of the statement, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” This is, in essence, a rhetorical taxonomy that says persuasion is more effective than invective, i.e., if you want to catch flies, do the first and not the second. If, on the other hand, you don’t wish to catch any flies, you should probably do the second.

        For me, on a day to day basis, taxonomies are most useful as a teaching tool. I get a lot of papers with terrible sentences. The sentences fail to convince because they are not written correctly. If all I can say to the student is “the sentence is not written correctly,” that doesn’t help, because had the student known how to write correctly, s/he would have. It’s much more helpful if I can say, “you use the verb incorrectly.” However, if the student can’t identify a verb, then my advice is not useful to him/her. Or let’s say the sentence is written correctly. If all I can say is “it moves me,” that’s nice and makes the student feel good, but it doesn’t help the student reproduce the effect elsewhere in his/her work. If I can say, “it moves me because the ekphrasis is so effective,” then the student can take that tool and put it to work elsewhere.

        It’s not that artists use these terms themselves. I can’t imagine that most novelists these days say, oh, let me insert an ekphrasis here. But for those of us who want to know how literature works, the taxonomy provides useful information that helps us both to understand why a work moves us, and to possibly use in our own writing later.

    • Servetus says:

      Or here’s a practical example — the effect of ekphrasis explains why we’re so interested in what other people think about art. It’s one reason why interviewers ask questions like, “what are you listening to on your iPod?” Because the aesthetic judgments of a speaker in whom we have invested about symbolic objects that we share access to have the capacity to fascinate us.

      • kelbel75 says:

        so they’re using it as a spring-board of sorts, to illustrate the idea that they are trying to get across?

      • Servetus says:

        When a writer does it, sure, but one of the main effects is characterization. If you know the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, that’s a good example. The narrator of the poem describes a painting he sees of his late wife. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but you learn eerie things about the narrator as he describes the painting.

        In general, ekphrasis offers a way to talk about something without talking about it directly, which is an important literary technique.

      • kelbel75 says:

        yes, I agree it is a very important literary technique. I guess I was just stuck on why paintings have their own form of it. learn something new everyday though, and I’m glad I learned this today 🙂

      • Servetus says:

        iirc, ekphrasis refers to the narrative description of any work of visual art, but I’m not up on the modern meanings of these terms, I only know them as they show up in my own studies.

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