Thursday, December 20, 2012

Notes on Ekphrasis

Creating poetry is more than just sitting down and writing “stuff” in a particular form. “Stuff” rarely materialises like manna, it must be found from somewhere.

Finding “stuff” to write about can be difficult. The notions of “writing what you know”, “write what you see around you” and “write from experience” are all good in principle, but when these sources seem exhausted, dry or repetitious and unchallenging, it can be useful to take a break and borrow material from somewhere else. I do not believe that everything should be written from direct experience and as a scientist, I would be peculiarly stunted if I started experimenting or theorising based only my own experience.

Other artists provide a useful source of material, usually “pre-sorted”. I suspect few artists create work from material they think unimportant, so looking at a piece of art gives an already considered source. I often chose paintings and photographs as a source, often for an exercise rather than with the deliberate intention to write a poem. Interestingly, I choose the work, I am not forced to a given work. I tend to approach this material in different ways, sometimes taking them at face value, sometimes with a more cynical eye. Sometimes my approach changes during the exercise.

The choice provides more than a source, it also provides constraints to the writing. The style of the source is often reflected in the writing style, for example, the impression of simplicity in Spencer’s “St Francis and the Birds” is reflected in the simple style of the resulting poem. Constraints may be subverted when the source acts as a catalyst to a wider ranging piece as in “So we all find the shore before sunset”, based on Turner’s allegorical “War.The Exile and the Rock Limpet”.

Although it is dangerous to mix sources, I find contrasting pieces, often in different genres, can provide a mid-ground that provides valuable thinking space. The poem “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère, Édouard Manet, 1882″ was originally based not on the painting itself, but on Copolla’s film “Lost in Translation”. The painting provided the material, the film the constraints.

Sometimes it is not the image that provides the material, but the technique. My Marilyn poems are often based on photographs, but one in particular “The digital enhancement of photographs of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio” is based not on the image, but the enhancement techniques.

Ekphrasis has moved on since the days where it just involved detailed description of other artists’ work and this progress makes it a valuable resource for writing. By providing already processed material it provides constraints but also different approaches for the writer and even new ways of thinking.

Friday, December 7, 2012

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet

So we all find the shore before sunset

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet
J.M.W. Turner, 1842

A cat may look at a king,
an exile may look at a rock limpet.
In rust-red, a doomed sun rides down,
haunts the sky and sea.
Tents on a battlefield look beautiful,
ethereal ghosts blown by wind
from fight to failure, ripped and ruined,
hanging from barren orchards, orange
in the salt marsh dusk.
                       Limpets grip
grimly to hard hats, strong
against gyre and flow, ever resisting,
grinding moats and entrenching
sockets into hollowed rock.

Mists sink as spectres, clean
of mire and mortality, stare
from eyeless orbits.
                        A cat may look at a king,
an emperor may look at a rock limpet,
while we, each one of us,
watched by an all-seeing guard,
cling on.

© Martin Porter 2012

This poem is an exercise piece, based on Turner’s painting in the Tate Britain. The poem uses a combination of colour palette and composition, scene setting and the introduction of ideosyncratic imagery in an attempt to emulate Turner’s vision. The introduction of the cliche (dating from as far back as 1562) “a cat may look at a king” is intended to reflect the odd image of the rock limpet in the painting. Using the cliche also aids the inversion of the emperor looking at the rock limpet and it is this inversion that is one of the crucial elements of the poem’s central question of who is in control here.

Other elements are also in play. The ghost-like tents as a metaphor of the spectral group of presumed dead army also reflects the conical shell of the limpet, and the hard hats of the limpet reflect the armour of the dead infantry. The motion of the sea is used as a metaphor of the ebb and flow of military campaigning. The similarity of sound between “guard” and “god” is also intentional.

What else is central to the poem? The inclusion of the audience, perhaps of the painting or perhaps of the poem, to make a final thought was important. I did not want to leave without the thought that we, all of us, may be in some way responsible for war, not necessarily directly, but possibly by our lifestyle choices, our wilful ignorance (or ignore-ance) of the desperation of others or just sheer indifference to our societal responsibilities.

Although an exercise piece, this poem has something to say, difficult as it must be to anyone who comes to it cold. This has grown from a simple collection of ideas from a painting to encompass contemporary and disturbing concepts.