Are artists expected to paint only self-portraits? Authors to write just memoir? Of course not. It is interesting to ask why we might place such limitations on poets, then. If confessional has come to be a default mode for contemporary American poetry, what might we be missing out on? Poetry challenge: Create a poem without the I-word.
When writing an ekphrastic poem, it’s never enough to simply describe a scene; one must inhabit it. And to inhabit a scene is to be there as a living being who is a creature in and of time, not removed from time, not observing from the cool distance of timelessness.
It’s true, however, that a picture is time stopped, a moment removed from all the other moments flowing before and, especially, after it. The way scientists remove a core sample from the earth in order to run tests in the lab, the painter or photographer has taken a core sample of time, the better to meditate on a particular moment. In so doing, one hope is that from the particular we may experience some larger truth.
An engaged viewer returns a picture to time’s animation. The poet who uses a work of art as a starting point is doing just this. And what it means is the picture is allowed to live, allowed all the gifts of time: action and transformation chief among them. Shadows lengthen. Icarus disappears into the sea without a trace, and the water’s surface is seamless again. The girl making lace feels a sudden rush of rebellion in her fingers.
I am sometimes asked to recommend resources for students of poetry and for poets looking to hone their craft (or pull out of a rut). Collected here are just some of the books and links that I have found particularly helpful over the years for myself and my students.