poems and pictures


For a long time I regarded poems about photos as examples of ekphrasis, that “verbal representation of visual representation” genre theorized by scholars like W.J.T. Mitchell. As Mitchell sees it, the relationship between verbal and visual arts is contentious. Verbal texts like poems are time-based, while visual arts such as painting and sculpture are primarily spatial. Poetry, like music, is dynamic; its duration is essential to its effect. Painting and sculpture, on the other hand, are generally static. And so, ekphrastic writing often positions itself as a controlling voice that must speak for the silent art object. Keats’s Grecian urn, say, is beautiful, enigmatic, and mute; the poem masters, defines, and vivifies its stillness. In ekphrastic writing time and space confront each other, and the ways poets negotiate this contest gives the genre its energy. But I now think that photo-poems like Rilke’s “Portrait of My Father” are not really ekphrastic. Photographs don’t derive their essence from their spatial quality. They exist in space, of course. But a photograph, like a poem and unlike a painting, depends on time.

more from V. Penelope Pelizzon at Poetry Magazine here.