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Aesthetic Validity and Ekphrasis
– originally posted to the PDC Mar. 4, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"In Vitebsk, there Lives a Cow" by Nuala Ní Chonchúir — Poetry Daily, 3/14/2013


from Prairie Schooner (Spring 2013)
poem found here




Ekphrasis: “the graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art." (Thank you, Wikipedia.) It is a subject for poetry for which I have a fondness, for in a great way it is can be one of the purer forms of aesthetic discourse: rather than a mere description of the physical, historical, generic, or stylistic qualities of a work of art there is engagement, there is experience brought into words. Hopefully, out of those words, there is a door opened to a new experience of that work of art.

(And, on the writer's side, it can be quite a challenge.)

But, that should not — and, indeed, can not — disqualify the consideration of the engagement with the poem itself. Ekphrasis is demonstration and performance of an engagement, and thus must itself present an engagement for anything to be offered to the reader. Otherwise, however much one might think they are presenting one’s own experience with the work, they are, in fact, collapsing that experience into the banal reiterations of convention: they are saying to the reader “this is what this painting means," concreting the painting (and the poem) in mere meaning when they should be creating for the reader an individual experience.

A dual experience, in a way: after all, the reader reads the poem, gains that experience; then the reader can go back to the painting, view the painting through the experience of the poem, and gain a new experience. This is aesthetic discourse (as concerns the painting). Not “this is what it means," or “this is why it is important," but “this is what I see in it; this is what I get out of it; this is the experience I have when viewing it." The test is not accuracy, not adherence to whatever version of “truth" one might claim, but validity.

Two people stand before a painting (or, two people read a poem). Each speaks their engagement with the painting. How do there two speeches compare? Can they be compared? Specifically, can one of say of either “that is correct"? Only from the viewpoint of the structures of genre and convention, from out the language of the nomic, which is about the making and assuring of truth. But not from the place of the individual: any true engagement with an aesthetic work is above all an individual engagement, an engagement based not in rational truth but in the unconscious.

So, then, there are two engagements: whereas to question either as truth is to efface engagement entirely, there is yet a means of comparison. That means lies in the idea of validity: i.e., to question is a response to a work valid? Really, this is no different that what we as individuals do any time we approach a work with any critical acumen: we read a poem, explore its ideas, test those ideas in re-reading, explore some, test some more, until we come to a place where we feel comfortable with the validity of our engagement. What we are adding, really, is the recognition that every individual is an individual, with their own level of sophistication, with their own knowledge, with their own psyche. Thus, with their own validity.

To explain by a wholly imagined and intentionally simplistic example, we return to our two people, who stand before a painting of two military bodies engaged in a battle. One viewer says, “With the energies of the image, I see in it the violence of war." But the other has noticed a figure on one side that is a depiction of Victory — something the first viewer would not recognize. As such, because of his knowledge, the second viewer has a different experience, a different engagement. He then says to the first, “But this side is marked as the soon-to-be victorious side, so I don't see it as simply violence." The first looks, accepts the information (perhaps after a question or two as to who Victory is) and his experience of the painting changes. What has happened is not a correction of truth, but a comparison of experiences — which, of course, includes knowledge. With the new knowledge, the experience for the first viewer has changed.

Now the first viewer has a new basis of experience, and takes a new look. And with the new focus on the figure of Victory, notices something new: “It seems to me that the woman is moving backwards, that the people around her are getting pushed back a bit." The second looks again as well, agrees, and, with the first, comes to a new experience: “The side used to be winning, but now it is not." And, suddenly, the violence of the picture brings on a new experience: “There is something about the violence in the image, it feels directed, as though generated within the side with Victory, wielded upon the other side."

“And that is why Victory is leaving," says the first in agreement. “They might be winning the battle, but they are not victorious, for they are losing the moral war." A new idea, one that fits the painting, and suddenly the painting comes alive with even more energy then before.

How is this validity, and not, simply, finding the meaning of the painting? The difference is found in two places: (1) whether the viewers were, themselves, engaging the painting, experiencing the painting, and letting their analyses modify and expand that experience and engagement, or whether they were, simply, trying to deduce some meaning, to reduce the painting — through analysis of its component parts — to meaning; and (2) whether we, here, in exploring the scene are doing the one or the other: will we reduce their anlysis to meaning, or will we recognize that at no point were either viewer wrong. More to the point, if it was a true aesethetic discourse, a speaking of engagements, at no point did the concept of “wrong" even enter the conversation. Every experience, at every point, was, essentially, “correct" . . . because — and this is the important part — it was their personal experience of the painting.

Nor was any subsequent engagement more “right" than any previous, nor was either person's engagement for correct than the other's. They were, merely, and only after the moments of comparison, more, or less, valid. Notice that validity -- as is correctness -- is always a comparison. Correctness is a comparison to whatever is accepted as established truth. Validity is, simply, comparison. Neither element bears any established truth-value, except within the context of the individual: that individual examines case A, compares it to case B, and decides, in a method as much unconscious as not, which offers the greater experience of the artwork in question. As such, even the 'truth' of whether it is, in fact, Victory in the painting is irrelevant. That is, until some other person comes along and offers knowledge that will again offer the possibility of a more valid engagement. Even if the information is incorrect, it is still a 'valid' engagement, as it is for them the most productive engagement.

This comes into play in works where the artist's or writer's intent does not match the result: for example, the artist with this work intended to insert into the painting an image of Aphrodite taken from some sculpture he saw in a museum, but he botched the job and for it nearly everyone who looks at the painting sees Victory. The 'fact' of the woman may be she was intended to be Aphrodite; but the more valid engagement of the woman is Victory.

So, then, we return to our ekphrasis, and to what most readers of literature already recognize: that an ekphrasis can be (I would say usually is) the speaking of an engagement with a painting or other work of art. And we do find such in this poem. It does create an ideation that both comes out of and, for me, adds to my viewing of Chagall’s painting. (I should say that I was relatively unfamiliar with the painting until this poem, and have intentionally refused to see if there is a connection between Vitebsk and Chagall, or something particularly special about shtibels and Chagall.) As such, as far as being an ekphrasis, the poem does succeed to some degree. (Though, to be fair, I must then clarify, since I was unfamiliar with the painting, it would not take much for a poem to add something to my engagement with it.)

But does our ekphrasis work as a poem? What does it offer in terms of engagement with itself? Here, the poem leaves me unfulfilled, mostly because it does not attempt to be very much, outside of a small handful of not to terribly interesting and not to terribly calculated lines. While the idea of the poem — as regards the painting — might be somewhat interesting, as a poem there’s really not much there. Which is too bad: the idea in “a room small as prayer" is a really interesting one, one perhaps that should have informed the whole of the poem to a greater degree than it currently does. (By the by, the choice not to say “small as a prayer" is excellent, and is the highpoint of the poem.)

But, even simpler, why not add meter and rhyme? Because the lines offered are unmeasured free verse (without rhyme), the potential of the poem is mostly undiscovered. In the end, it’s no different — and thus as trivial — as nearly every other free verse poem one finds in the poetic domain. Which is a shame, because the same idea, especially if fed upon “a room small as prayer," using measured and rhymed lines, would have made for a great little poem. Instead, there really is nothing special here.


(Note that I am not making a blanket pereference for formal verse over free verse here. I am saying that in this one case, formality seems called for, feels like a more profitable route.)