Up the hill and overlooking Aix
Without seeing it branch shadows
Cross and re-cross on the sand yellow
Leaves shade out distractions back
The terrace heaven green while carefully
Calibrated grey shines gloom inside
From painted walls and dedicate a sacred
Factory and still suggesting real
Presences despite the painter’s retirement
A century ago and curious tramping
Through the precincts never would have been
Tolerated then though reverent
But they can witness that he forged his pictures
On a wattled world before canvas.
The notion of ‘ekphrastic poetry’ can seem problematic at first glance, particularly if the etymology is taken into account – ‘saying out’ – suggesting a kind of explication, or a conversion of a work of art into prose. Part of this mismatch – between the etymological idea of explication, and the modern idea of transfer from one art form into another – may be due to the history of the term ekphrasis, the early use of which in rhetoric did not specifically refer to the representation of one art work by means of another kind of art work, or even of the description of a work of art in language Nevertheless, to suppose that work of art can be translated in some way into one of another kind, or that something about it can be represented again artistically in a different medium, raises a number of awkward questions. Do art works carry messages? Can the import of a work of art be said? Is there anything which could be carried across from picture into a piece of music, or into a piece of language? Can something about a picture (or piece of music) be reproduced more effectively in artistic or discursive language?
If it is admitted that an art work can represent (or ‘re-present’, as David Jones would say) a truth or reality, but that this truth is present in the work in a way which cannot be said in any other way, in line with Gadamer’s argument in his essay ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’, then the possibility of a translation of what a work of art says seems to be affirmed and denied at the same time – there is something to translate, but it is untranslatable. The key to a way beyond this impasse may lie in poetry’s being artistic language. A poem will not aim to explicate what a painting, for example, means, or reproduce its visual impression (something at which the painting’s own medium cannot be surpassed), since poetry is more synthetic than analytical in character. What poetry can achieve is a new making, such that, if a painting is the point of departure, the poem can ‘re-re-present’ some aspect truly present in the painting, resulting in a new thing, which may enrich understanding of the work it has been inspired by, but which also calls for a new response. The ekphrastic poem will thus add to the being in the world (as Gadamer suggests all art does, in the same essay).
Understanding ekphrasis as a making of a new set of signs to signify, and re-present something of, a pre-existing signifying ensemble (work of art), may imply a further dimension, one which perhaps diminishes the specificity of ekphrasis as a phenomenon, but increases its depth. Any work of art could be understood as a kind of ekphrasis, if the realities they signify themselves have the power of signification – if the things we see, hear and feel in the world and in ourselves have their own meanings, which their re-presented forms carry with them into each new making.
Cézanne’s studio, where he worked late in his career, and which can be visited today (together with its garden), was built and set up according to his specifications, and so is perhaps one of his works of art in its own right, with a work of art’s completeness and self-containment, carrying its own elusive meaning – elusive, that is, in terms of discursive language – and aspects and parts of which he then re-interpreted and re-embodied in paint. I visited on a hot summer afternoon, appreciating the heavy shade the trees round the building provided, and it felt as if Cézanne might step onto the gravel at any time.
Martin Potter has taught English literature in tertiary education, and has published on the twentieth-century Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones. His poems have appeared in Acumen, The Cannon’s Mouth, and The French Literary Review.