The Poets’ Niche
By Mark Sconce
Ekphrastic is not a geologic age like the Triassic or the Jurassic. Rather, like this column, it is just another niche in the history of poetry. And, like so many things we accept as established, ekphrasis was first conceived, defined and utilized by the ancient Greeks. Ekphrasis simply meant description, but today it implies a vivid or dramatic description of a work of art—a painting, a sculpture or some other objet d’art. In other words, art describing art. Describe it to a blind man with all the skill the poet can bring, including his feelings about the piece–his interpretation. The ekphrastic tradition begins with Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in the Illiad.
Two cities radiant on the shield appear,
The image one of peace, and one of war.
Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight,
And solemn dance, and hymeneal rite;
Along the street the new-made brides are led,
With torches flaming, to the nuptial bed:
The youthful dancers in a circle bound
To the soft flute, and cithern’s silver sound:
Through the fair streets the matrons in a row
Stand in their porches, and enjoy the show.
And what could be more Grecian than a Grecian Urn?
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
John Keats (1795-1821)
Henry David Thoreau reminds us, “It is not what you look at but what you see.”
An eye-popping example would be X.J. Kennedy’s take on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.
We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh—
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to let her parts go by.
One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.
And finally, as William Butler Yeats asks, “O, body swayed to music/O, brightening glance/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
Natalie Safir (1990)
A break in the circle dance of naked women,
dropped stitch between the hands
of the slender figure stretching too hard
to reach her joyful sisters.
Spirals of glee sail from the arms
of the tallest woman. She pulls
the circle around with her fire.
What has she found that she doesn’t
keep losing, her torso
a green-burning torch?
Grass mounds curve ripely beneath
two others who dance beyond the blue.
Breasts swell and multiply and
rhythms rise to a gallop.
Hurry, frightened one and grab on–before
the stich is forever lost, before the dance
unravels and a black sun swirls from that space.
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