Thursday, September 23, 2010

Guest in Progress: Deborah Batterman on Ekphrasis

The following piece by Deborah Batterman about how visual art and writing intertwine powerfully resonates with me, as I recently went to a great exhibit at the Hirshhorn Musuem (Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Power, alas, now moving on to Minneapolis, I believe) and just last night saw some wonderful sculpture in show called “Porous Borders” (info here). Inspiration is everywhere!

Words into Images/Images into Words
By Deborah Batterman

Many years ago, on a trip to Japan, I visited a temple, Shisendo, the “House of the Hermit Poet.” Built in 1642 by Ishikawa Jozan, a warrior-turned-scholar of Chinese literature and poet who lived out his years as a recluse, the gardens and building now encompass a Buddhist retreat. On the second level of the building is a single room, “tower for whistling at the moon,” with a 360-degree view of the sky. If that weren’t enough to impress on me the Japanese reverence for poetry (second-story rooms were not typical), something else that has stayed with me from that trip was a more typical detail of traditional Japanese architecture, namely the continuity of interior and exterior space. Movable panels open to the outside garden, in essence framing the view, quintessentially landscape in its wide panorama. It allows for a certain contemplative mood, if not complete serenity. I imagine it gave rise to the picture window.

It strikes me as no accident of nature that the language of thought – insight, visualization, imagination – is rooted in the ability to see. The greater the capacity to visualize, the deeper the insight. The stronger the images we can conjure, the better equipped we are for transcending the bounds of the literal and weaving metaphor into everyday consciousness. For the poet meditating on the lines swirling in the sand of a rock garden or gazing at ten thousand dancing daffodils or entranced by a grasshopper eating sugar from her hand, looking out becomes a way of looking in. By extension, art in any form – painting, photograph, artifacts, sculpture – becomes a source of visual reflection, if not pure inspiration. The lines that echo from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter” – are as much an observation about the power of suggestion as they are a reminder of the timeless nature of art.

Ekphrasis, the Greek term for conveying in words what one sees in a work of art, came into being as a device for rhetoricians. Among the illuminating insights Margaret Doody brings to the origins of the novel in her comprehensive tome, The True Story of the Novel, is the way in which ekphrasis has been used in fiction. Literally, “telling at length, description,” ekphrasis initially was a way of exploring art via description. In making a very good case for expanding the definition of the novel to include narratives from ancient times, Doody points to specific works (Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, for example) that used art as the subject or frame for a story. For a poet, pulling images directly from a visual medium would seem to be second nature. For a fiction writer, it’s more a question of pulling from the image an implied narrative or using it as a spinoff for something it suggests. More modern writers, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Henry James to Margaret Atwood, have used paintings as a way of reinforcing underlying themes in their novels.

At the heart of Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book is an illuminated scroll, which came to be known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This much is fact: a Muslim librarian rescued the centuries-old work of art from the ravages of the Bosnian War; a few decades earlier a Muslim scholar managed to keep it from the hands of the Nazis. Early in the book is a description of an illustration from the manuscript, a Passover meal, classic ekphrasis through the eyes of the main character, a rare book expert called in to analyze the manuscript. The rest of the novel is a double helix, Hanna Heath’s story entwined with the fictional reconstruction of the manuscript’s history drawn from artifacts she discovers. By definition, Haggadah translates to “telling.” In Brooks’s telling of a telling, the pigments used for the scroll and the cat-hair brush are as much a part of the tale as the mysteries (a wine stain, a fragment of an insect’s wing, saltwater) that allow her to imagine its journey through time.

To my own thinking, the history of illustrated texts (illuminated or otherwise) suggests that visual art derives as much from the written word as the written word derives from visual art. If William Blake’s Illuminated Books were a deliberate attempt to integrate his printmaking, painting, and poetry (in the process taking charge of the means of production and distribution of his work), their effect is to bring a more universal dimension to the earlier forms of illuminated manuscripts to which they allude. They also stand as exquisite reminders of the ways in which text and image can inform one another. There isn’t one reference to sheep in the lines of “Spring,” yet what child (or adult) isn’t enriched by the image of a mother sitting under a tree, her “Little Boy/Full of joy” reaching out to the grazing sheep? There’s a reason picture books are the first forms of literature we introduce to children.

In a way, there’s something intrinsic in the way the mind works to make sense of an image. Before the written word there existed the picture. An ancient pictogram of a bird and egg together would symbolize “fertility.” Two parallel lines denoted friendship. Symbols – cuneiform, hieroglyphs – became a way of recording transactions that were difficult to maintain orally. At the same time, this cradle of civilization was still being “rocked,” as it were, by myths and epics passed on verbally. Each telling was a re-creation, calling up affective responses in listeners that gave resonance to cultural messages. If memorization, as we think of it today, evokes drills and drudgery, memory in oral cultures was emotionally charged in its connection to the everyday world and its reliance on “rhyme, rhythm, meter, repetition of formulae, redundancy, and . . . highly vivid or visual images conveyed through their sensory qualities.”(1)

It was a world suffused by what Kieran Egan calls the “poetics of memory.”(2) To think in figurative or metaphoric terms was part of our ancestors’ make-up. In today’s world, fast-paced and computer-driven, images are tossed at us left and right. Style often prevails over substance. Reflection gets lost in the shuffle of images, and the link between the visual and the written is in a state of hypertextual blur.

In my poetry and fiction workshops, especially with young students, the biggest challenge is getting them past the rational underpinnings of the scientific-mathematical mode so pronounced in our system of education. They are (for the most part) nothing if not literal-minded, partly a product of being born and bred in the Age of the Visual with its what-you-see-is-what-you-get paradigm. Ironically, getting them to even approach a figurative frame of mind requires giving them something to look at: scenes from magazines and books and calendars, photographs of athletes and musicians and everyday people doing everyday things, slides of the solar system, overheads of famous works of art. If the image strikes me as colorful or provocative or in any way interesting, I bring it in. We explore some together, as I take them through warm-ups that draw on sensory perception. Now it’s their turn to pick and choose, recreate in words whatever picture has struck a chord. With any luck, staring at it will take them to that place beneath the surface of consciousness where the image will reveal its emotional underpinning, maybe shape itself into a story or poem. It’s nothing more, really, than I ask of myself: No Moment Will Ever Be like This One

There are any number of paintings to meditate on in Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 at MOMA, but one in particular, The Moroccans, would not let me walk away. At first it was the abstraction – the shapes, the colors – that held me but something demanded that I linger and look more closely. The balcony in the top right corner was easy to discern, but where are we, and those large green shapes below the balcony in the foreground, they look too large to be leaves, and yet what else could they be? and that white sphere on top of an alluring patch of purple, is that the figure of a man? If every picture tells a story, I was hooked on this one.

1. Kieran Egan, “The domestication of the sauvage mind,” in Primary Understanding: Education in Early Childhood (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 66-67.
2. Ibid, pp. 64-68 and 82-87. A slight variation of this article appears in Kieran Egan and Dan Nadaner, eds., Imagination & Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1988). See “The Origins of Imagination and the Curriculum,” pp. 91-127

About: Deborah Batterman is a fiction writer, essayist, and teaching artist. Her stories and essays appear in print and online journals, including her website/blog, The Things She Thinks About . . . She recently published a new, digital edition of her short story collection, Shoes Hair Nails.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.