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Dr. Elaine Handley, Empire State College - Ekphrastic Writing

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Elaine Handley of Empire State College explores the long literary tradition of writing about inanimate objects. 

About Dr. Handley

Dr. Elaine Handley - Ekphrastic Writing

Ekphrasis uses poetic language to write about art, an ancient tradition that exists in every known culture.  Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad helped establish the ekphrastic tradition. The original goal of this literary form was to create the experience of a work of art for the reader so it could be imagined.  In the Phaedrus Plato observed that when paintings and poetry are combined they create a kind of intelligence that talks to us.

A famous example of ekphrasis is Keat’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” a poem in which the poet reflects upon the scenes depicted on ancient pottery.  Unlike Homer, Keats goes beyond description and meditates on the power of art to create timeless depictions, but mourns the fact that the scenes are frozen in time: the young lovers about to kiss will never consummate their love. The immutable aspect of art is held up to the very mutable aspect of living and all the joy and heartbreak.

This shift of the poet interpreting and entering into a work of art reflects a transformation in the genre of ekphrasis. More modern examples include W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” and William Carlos William’s poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”   both based on Breughel the Elder’s sixteenth century landscape painting. These poems articulate how extraordinary things, often someone else’s suffering, are going on about us when we are immersed in ordinary activities. When we view an artwork we bring our lived experience, our humanity, as the means by which to understand the work.  Poetry articulates this.  As William Burroughs wrote, a kind of synergy is created: the combination of writing and visual art activates "The Third Mind."

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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