Ekphrasis

Bruegel,_P
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Brueghel

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.

Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_lacemaker_(c.1669-1671)
The Lacemaker by Vermeer

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.

Energy

A good poem generates energy, or better yet, is energy.  What does this mean?  That there’s action and contrast.  Movement.  Transformation.  To better understand, ponder the opposite:  stasis, inertia.  Passivity and monotony.

To make an image or idea dynamic means to give it something to spark against, to put it into contact with something else.  You could try banging a flint against empty space, but nothing will come of it.  Take a poem you love and examine how the sparks are created.  Do the images and ideas interact, bang into each other like excited atoms, or are they suspended in a sterile environment, cool and aloof?

I try to keep thinking about energy not only during the writing process but also (and perhaps especially) during revision.  Having images and ideas already on paper to work with – to rearrange, expand upon, cut, simplify, complicate, connect – makes the job of activation easier.