• Patrick Wright

Given that the majority of poems and criticism on the subject of ekphrasis have emerged with a figurative image in mind, I wish to discuss the composition of poems in response to images that are almost entirely without form. A late painting by J.M.W. Turner (Sunrise with Sea-monsters) will be presented as a case study, one looking at how contemporary poets – including my own practice – might engage with (near) formlessness, as is often represented in the seascape genre. Questions to be explored can be summarised thus: What occurs in the transposition of lacunal images into words? Is there an alchemy between seeing/mis-seeing and writing? How does such a dynamic go beyond representation? To advance on past work in this area I will also employ postmodern theory, which – like the non-figurative image, developments in modern art, and looking at more obscure art works – has been neglected in ekphrasis criticism thus far. 


Keywords: Ekphrasis – Poetry – Form – Postmodern – Painting  

Recent critical discussion of ekphrasis is characterised by some uncertainty over how the word is defined. Especially, it seems, is an apparent dichotomy – between a modern understanding of the term and how it was made use of in antiquity. Whereas the former might refer to description of a pre-existing art work, the latter – ekphrasis as practised by the Greeks – was a rhetorical strategy in conveying energeia or the vividness of lived experience. This definition is consistent with Homer’s Shield of Achilles (the shield does not really exist), where what becomes possible is ekphrasis not only in response to imaginary objects, but also in response to a scene, a memory or a dream. The most binding characteristic is the skill of the writer to conjure an image in the mind of the reader – to make this image believable (Webb 1999). Notional ekphrasis, despite the ongoing debate over what it may and may not contain, is more accommodating when it comes to verbal rendering of the visual. In the case of this article though, since my example purposefully makes use of an image which blurs the distinction between the figurative and the non-figurative – namely, Turner’s Sunrise with Sea-monsters – it is appropriate, too, to settle upon a definition of ekphrasis which, likewise, does not sustain the opposition of an actual art object and one that is imagined.

With the painting in question, which is almost nothing but a morass of colour, examining the lower left section reveals something between artistic intent and happenstance, between the figure (signs that are motivated and recognised by others) and traces which the spectator sees (in the capacity of critic or poet) as a point of departure. This part of the painting, one that might be understood in terms of pareidolia, is the subject of guesswork (is it fish? a monster? a monkey face?), and art historians remain unsure as to what Turner had in mind. The status of the image is also apt, given that it belongs to a series of late paintings by the artist which are often understood as unfinished. Ekphrastic practice today is clearly evolving beyond canonical examples, changing and exploring new approaches. However, unlike most instances of modern ekphrasis, where the poet responds to an exhibited and often canonised art work, the Turner work is perhaps no more than an experiment – marginal to his oeuvre and hidden – which, as a potential objet d’art, is isomorphic with a broadly encompassing notion of ekphrasis, one that allows for the possibility of writing in response to an image that exists in the mind, one produced within the psychodynamics of subject and object. So ekphrasis will suffice, the loose definition of the verbal representation of visual representation, as long as the latter includes the inner work of the imagination (Heffernan 2004).      

Having opened up the meaning of ekphrasis, it is nevertheless important to clarify that its classical formulation is discontinuous with its modern use and meaning. And just as the term has been seemingly broadened with reference to conveying vividness, it is likewise also incumbent on this analysis to ensure the definition does not become so rarified as to be pointless. Certainly, the intention is not to present a more accurate or definitive understanding, though – while going with a provisional reading, as suggested above – what is more cogent is a re-appraisal not of ekphrasis, but rather what is meant by art. Ekphrasis criticism has, in fact, yet to catch up and interface with the art criticism of the twentieth century. Since Marcel Duchamp particularly, the art work comes into being in and through its context, theoretical discourse and the viewing subject. Providing, in other words, a frame, the visual stimulus makes a transition into art from what, previously, might have only been its unrealised potential. So, rather than labour too long on redefining ekphrasis or distinguishing its modern usage from classical accounts, it might be better for the purpose of this article to simply accommodate the postmodern re-evaluation of the art object to the ad hoc (and, no doubt, over-simplistic) modern definition of ekphrasis as a verbal representation of the visual.

For now though, side-stepping the possibility of writing vis-à-vis conceptual art, it is worth considering developments in nineteenth-century painting, especially its shift towards the sublime, the obscure and the non-figurative, which includes consistent reference to the materiality of the image, that it is paint on a flat surface (representation). Moreover, as Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois have proposed, it is around this time (from Turner onwards) that the art object begins to be brought down from its pedestal (Bois and Krauss 1997). Whether the debasement can be recognised in l’art pour l’art, realism, the work of the Impressionists, and so forth, this process signifies a separation from the moralising and sublimating forms which preceded them. Germane too, especially through Northern European Romanticism, one can observe a greater proclivity for presenting the expansiveness or lacunal aspects of nature. In Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea for instance, the figure (the lone monk) is diminished by large areas of sea and sky, which take up most of the composition. With Turner’s Sunrise, this is even more apparent: light, colour, atmospherics predominate; the only content being the aforementioned and spurious sea-monsters which, crucially, are either seen as such or they are something else. Again, one might consider the sublime here, emerging as an aesthetic which emphasises the essential solitariness of the viewing experience. However, it is important to appreciate that some element of form always remains. The examples given above, for instance, still reference the real, even if they incorporate imaginative representations.

Nearly always, as already suggested, both poems and criticism on the subject of ekphrasis have as their focus a figurative image. By figurative I mean pictures that contain discernible objects – obeying (though not always) the principles of verisimilitude or mimesis. As some critics such as David Kennedy observe, the modern paradigm of ekphrasis is limited (Kennedy 2012). Two specific instances are worthy of note: 1), traditional ekphrasis has been unable to keep up with the formal and aesthetic developments in modern art, especially in the twentieth century where, following one lineage, the image becomes increasingly formless. Often the conventions of abstraction are followed, though formlessness, a resistance to form, or l’informe, does not carry the same programmatic intentions (Golding 2000); and 2), in previous commentaries on ekphrasis, governed again (as they are) by a modern paradigm, the application of postmodern theory to the practice has been largely overlooked. Importantly, in the vast majority of cases, the subject of the ekphrasis is a Cartesian one – that is, a subject which unproblematically sees an image (as object) and expresses, again unproblematically, thoughts and feelings which arise. This begs the question: what are the implications of ekphrasis that takes as a starting point not the self-transparent ego, but rather the idea of the split subject as proposed by psychoanalytic theory, one with an unconscious, one that is subsequently gazed at by the image? Most appropriate here is the Lacanian gaze – the source of which is not on the side of the subject but is, rather, on the side of the object. For Lacan, that which gazes at the poet/viewer is also the object cause of desire, which speaks/reaches out to the subject, though remains elusive and cannot be signified (Lacan 1978).  

One could imagine a kind of ekphrasis that allows the composition of poems in response to images that are almost entirely without content. Almost in this case, since it is questionable that any painting is absolutely featureless, by virtue of its recognition as an image by a viewing subject who is likely to find meaning even when no meaning was intended. My use of the term formless is therefore not without uneasiness (from one perspective Turner’s Sunrise is replete with form and meaning, rather than simply to be regarded as empty). Moreover, my argument will be that not only is this mode of ekphrasis possible, but also that the resulting poem makes more explicit a more general truth: that such poems say more about the writer than the picture they purport to describe. Conversely, if not enough is usually said of the viewer in their choice of image, perhaps too much is expected in traditional ekphrasis, since the etymology suggests a task which seems to over-reach itself (ekphrasis, from the Greek, might be translated as ‘telling in full’). Why not tell in part? Why not tell beyond? Or, why not tell in a way which says more of the context – whether that is the historical moment and/or encompasses the subject’s drives and psychical preoccupations?

Given these questions, there is a call for a psychoanalytic approach, one which starts with the idea of a split subject and is capable of providing some elaboration of the psychic projections which take place in the interplay of word and image. As referred to above, particularly relevant is the idea of a gaze on the side of the object (here, the Turner painting), one that uncannily seems to look at us or resonate with special significance. Lacan’s favourite example, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), first suggests that we are in control of our look; however, we then notice a blot at the bottom of the canvas, which we can only make out if we look at the painting from the side at an angle, from which point we begin to see that the blot is, in fact, a skull staring back at us. Comparable to this painting is Turner’s Sunrise, which similarly includes something vague and ambiguous – and in each case the gaze is likely to elicit a feeling of anxiety, precisely because such images invoke the realisation that familiar objects are only a screen over emptiness, or what Lacan understands in terms of the real (Lacan 1978). The originality of applying this concept in relation to the Turner painting is also with the hope that it can further contribute to areas thus far overlooked. These include, as Kennedy notes, the relationship between the attributes of the ekphrastic object and the ekphrasis itself, in addition to the notion of representation as a choice that produces a relationship between two entities that, in effect, changes both. While Kennedy focuses on ethics and temporality, from Keats onwards the concerns about the contemporary moment he identifies as integral to writing ekphrastically might be illuminated even better – through a model that speaks more eloquently on the subject of desire.  

First, though, it is necessarily to outline the critical heritage to which this article responds, one that might be understood in terms of spatial ekphrasis. As Michael Davidson (1983) has contended, language in the modern period is uneasy with its ability to ‘paint’ rhetorically and turns the mirror which once faced outward to nature back upon itself. The works of Flaubert, Joyce, Eliot, Pound and others – through presenting simultaneous perspectives on a given moment and through their use of unifying connectives (objective correlative, ideogram, ‘mythic method’) – seek to challenge chronological sequence or naturalistic perspective. In opposition with the rhetoric of pictorialism derived from Renaissance and Neo-Classical aesthetics, designed to establish limits on what each art might accomplish, one might distinguish the hallmark of postmodern ekphrastic criticism and writing. To offer no more than a cursory sketch, poems within this bracket might be identified as presenting the poet in acts of thinking and reflecting (such as Charles Olson’s Maximus poems or Robert Duncan’s Passages). Here the poem ‘discovers’ immanent meanings which at no point can be separated from those acts of mind involved in making the poem (Davidson 1983). Davidson’s commentary, like that of Kennedy and others, emphasises the dominant representational model of ekphrasis with reference to poets such as O’Hara and Ashbery, where painting is a prompt – for reflections or a process of working-out – which depends on semiotic features of the canvas. Much is written, already, of how the poet becomes a reader of the painter’s activity of signifying; how this is active and never recuperative – since the purpose is to produce a new text, not to re-capture the original in another medium; and how the writer who reads the art object transforms his hermeneutic into performance, just as the reader of the poem participates in generating his or her own readings. In this forum though, one which talks about the contemporary painterly poem – one that underlines its own materiality while displaying the odd, liminal space of the painting – it seems apparent that the image is assumed to be figurative or at least speakable; and so it is important to examine what occurs in the ekphrastic encounter when not only applying the concepts of postmodern criticism but also with an image in mind, such as Sunrise.   

In so doing, my analysis can also be seen as a way of problematising the standard and too easy binarism of the actual and the notional. The opposition is predicated on the assumption that the art object includes a figure/ground distinction. But once the subject is faced with the Turner, or other instances of indeterminacy, how can the ekphrasis which arises be anything other than a dialectic of the two into a final synthesis, of both description and something more? (Verdonk 2005). From this, I would also hazard the claim that, once the dichotomy of the actual and the notion is destabilised, and the viewer/poet is aware of their psychical investment in the image, ekphrasis is likewise less sustainable as an obscure literary subgenre. Instead, one might be more persuaded to see it as a general component of what it means to write creatively, insofar as images are involved in poetic language (Mitchell 1995: 156). Such an understanding is close to Roland Barthes’s idea of the arts as a series of texts, rather than disciplines or genres: a painting can be read, as a set of signifiers, just like a poem can be seen, as if it were a painting. To appreciate the interplay between faculties (sight and language) rather than between predetermined texts, is the basis for a more intimate communion, where the poet is writing with image rather than about it, where the non-hierarchical relationship between the writer and the image allows for the possibility that the latter articulates the former, through his or her ekphrases. The ekphrastic poetry collection (from say Ernest Farres to Charles Simic, Pascale Petit to Barry Hill, to name some recent examples) has, each in its own way, set out with the aim to undo the modern privileging of relationships between text and context, author and reader, and for our purposes, painting and the poem (Gillies 2012). While painting can provide some kind of analogue for this task, often the painting only serves as a springboard for the poet’s explorations. More radically though, as suggested earlier, what might the implications be for a poet who catches a picture as it gazes back, for he or she who knows the picture represents some aspect of the unconscious? It is not simply that the image acts as an armature for poetic elaboration; rather, it contains (though perhaps elusively) the cause of desire, that which speaks to the poet while remaining unlocatable.

Recent writing on ekphrasis, responding in some measure to the postmodern critique not only of the subject but also of representational models, talks about moving beyond mimesis and/or description. Rather than find some kind of equivalence, between the image and the poem, one is now encouraged to explore new meanings generated by the image. Avoiding, then, a paragonal contest between one medium and another, the poem which might reference an image is regarded now (quite rightly) as a document of time and process, alternating perspectives, and of history. It might be possible to again invoke the concept of ekphrasis in terms of energeia – variously defined as vigour, activity and purposeful movement – though any appropriation of this idea is thoroughly modern. Indeed, representation runs up against its limits, and poetry since Mallarmé or Whitman certainly gives greater attention to the medium as productive rather than re-productive. That is to say, poems might begin with a particular image only to then explore other dimensions of meaning which go off on tangents, such as examining details of the picture’s socio-historical conditions. In addition to these dimensions though, and alongside the perhaps more general truth that the poet is engaged in producing a work that is essentially disparate from the image, less commented on is the role of the unconscious, more specifically the act of projection, in the dynamics of ekphrastic practice. Certainly, though it is advisable to take into account the temporal and spatial vicissitudes in the process of writing – moments of indecision, uncertainty, a change in the point of view, and so forth, one may ask, even in the most contemporary scholarship, are we still not supposing a writer as ego rather than as subject, and consequently a writer whose choice of picture is elevated to the level of political commentary, rather than have this choice say something of one’s psyche?

Writing in and through a representational model – the illusion that words can, with a high level of skill and technique, correspond with the visual – has many examples in the literary canon. However, even though it is rarely the case that a poet aims for nothing more than description, an awareness of how the image represents the subject/spectator is not always evident, and is usually unconscious. Indeed, an ekphrasis that takes mimesis as its model, regardless of its merits, results most likely in an illustrative account of the image – which is to say it requires a signifier to be tied to one signified. Such an approach is patently dull in the sense that in and through the attempt to gain mastery over the image – striving for a precise or approximate description – what gets barred is the possibility of the painting (such as Turner’s Sunrise) writing the poet, how the painting finds the poet, or how the poet is (if they can admit it) writing about their own psyche in and through the painting. Indeed why, when faced with a picture, does the poet narrativise through interpretation (bringing some details to the forefront and relegating other details to the background) if such a narrative is not psychically significant? Any privileging of figures, especially, will most likely refer to the inner narrative of how the poet sees him or herself, what their preoccupations are; and this is especially obvious when, as is the case with a great deal of modern art, the distinction between figure and ground is less motivated. In the case of an abstract or amorphous work, such as the Turner, who is to say where one is supposed to look? Moreover, with a transposition of the image into words, what, one might ask, is an appropriate formal response to formlessness?                 

John Hollander and George Raitt rightly question the idea that ekphrasis helps illuminate the work of art, that poetic language arrives at further truth about the painting. The latter goes as far as suggesting a consensus – that the idea of poetry explaining visual art has reached a dead end. This is not to say, however, that poetry cannot illuminate the experience of seeing, explore the process of writing and the writer who sees. Raitt’s analysis is useful in making this distinction and addressing the important point that the poet responding to visual art might allow meaning to emerge at or beyond the limits of signification. In order to do so, the poet needs to restrain from any usual knowing and looking, which tends to involve language and reasoning. This intimates a Martian approach to the image (‘what the hell am I looking at?’), which contrasts in some obvious ways with more interpretative readings offered by the learned poet or art historian. Humility is necessary in this bracketing of meaning, faced with an image that is at least in part indecipherable. Rather than refer to negative capability here, one is asked to embody it (Raitt 2006; Hollander 1988). Where Raitt’s argument falls short of a breakthrough, though, after concluding that ekphrasis, in revealing not representational truth about the referent but rather ‘some other kind of truth’, is in occluding the unconscious and with it a psychoanalytic model of inquiry that might illuminate why the poet associates beyond their realm of the seeable.

It is necessary to acknowledge the fundamental disparity between word and image, that is to say that analogy does not lead to equivalence. As Foucault persuasively argues, in his own scholarly ekphrasis of Valázquez’s Las Meninas, the verbal and the visual are set in an infinite relationship; neither can be reduced to the other’s terms (Foucault 1994). Moreover, and in relation to this point, both modernist painting (Turner’s Sunrise is a good starting point) and contemporary ekphrasis must insist upon a discrete treatment of vision and language. To regard the two mediums as separate and non-hierarchical is a view that needs to be asserted, given that many poems in the tradition and the discourse on word and image more generally rehearse, whether openly or more covertly, the dominance of language and the idea of a paragonal contest, where the image will be brought under the sway of the poet’s talent. The logocentricism, in other words, which has presided over the history of ekphrasis – and contained in some of classicism’s most cited dictums on the subject (from the Horatian equation, ut pictura poesis, to Simonides, writing that ‘painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech’) – needs to be overturned in the poetry which follows both modern art’s tendency towards formlessness and the postmodern critique which secures its legitimacy. As an alternative, whether or not the image is governed by the principles of mimesis, poetic practice might proceed with the idea of an open-ended (and forever incomplete) dialogue between word and image (Krieger 1992). This dialogue might also be triangulated by the inclusion of the unconscious, already alluded to, which would further encourage the writer to be cognisant of the truth that what counts as description is more often psychical projection. And this is particularly noticeable as one looks at Sunrise; one is compelled to freely associate – after, that is, one admits to being at a loss for words.

Turner’s painting is situated at a moment where the viewing public was starting to gain a greater licence in where to look and what might be seen, rather than be directed, as they had been previously, by a narrative or script (Flynn 1997). It is curious, too, that the modern invention of ekphrasis as a discrete genre, in the mid nineteenth century, as identified by Webb, coincides with a departure from mimesis and verisimilitude in the visual arts. It might be that the forging of analogies between word and image at this time was a means of shoring up the relationship between the two, just as the visual was changing places with the verbal as the dominant mode through which the modern came to be presented. It would be a digression to explore this further, but it seems apparent that ekphrasis, resurgent as it is as a discursive phenomenon (seen too in a burgeoning interest in correspondences between art forms), is also reactionary, usually in its choice of content. The canvas/object is almost always, it appears, figurative, and the written account is there as a means of performing a show of mastery. This is consistent, too, with a broader discourse on the sublime, and, in the interplay between the verbal and the visual, an effort to bring the image under the sway of the word. Taking the Turner as a case study in what the alternative might look like, where colours, marks and traces exceed the usual attempts to say what one sees, rather than sublimation, it is possible to suggest a horizontal relationship between one text and another, where the formlessness of the painting and the poem, in effect, are tied in an open dialectic. Here there is no paragonal struggle, only mutuality. Here it is the painting that determines the shape of the poem, just as much as the poem signifies the painting.

Likewise, just as a frame is needed in constituting Sunrise as an art object, and enables an experiment of form, any poem written with or alongside the image must, it seems, be bound by a limitation that, at the same time, is productive. One term for this is procedural form, which finds some elaboration in Joseph Conte’s analysis of postmodern poetic forms. He suggests that, unlike traditional forms, procedural form ‘is a generative structure that constrains the poet to encounter and examine that which he or she does not immediately fathom’ (Conte 1997: 27). Often this involves contesting hierarchies and recognising indeterminacy and discontinuity. Most importantly, however, with the Turner image in mind, procedural poetry involves deciding on a constraint in advance of writing, one which shapes the poem and ensures some coherence, while in the end, only after influencing the poem’s content, gets lost in the eventual form – just as Turner’s painterly conventions are, it appears, at once a starting point and barely visible. The poetry of Anne Carson for instance, her poem ‘Automat’ being one example, makes use of rhyme, repetition, circularity, mirrored lineation, and close correspondence between ekphrasis and epigraph. Thus, to at least suggest a provisional answer to the question regarding an appropriate formal response to the formless, the frame is essential; and this frame needs to be considered as a means of mimesis, not between the poem and its referent but between the poem and the painting. Within the strictness of this frame, one which remains inconspicuous (like the painting), sounds, rhythm and rhyme may well predominate over and above metre and prosody. Free verse becomes a possibility, though organised by an invisible adherence to rules which fade, like the content of the image, into obscurity. One might also negate punctuation, use the whole of the page, mimicking the swathes of chromatic intensities in Sunrise.      

Once the frame is established, what gazes at the poet is colour; and forms, if these can be seen, either signify little or nothing at all. Given this quandary, the axis that the viewer/poet must follow is that of metaphor. This is owing to the usual correspondence between figures and words becoming problematised. The poet is impelled to make a leap – placing over a field of colour and light a form, or series of forms, which are the product of an active imagination. The tenor, in this context, is the surface of the painting, while the vehicle is a psychical object, with all its meanings and associations. These, given the inscrutability of this image, are inclined to slip and slide, where fixity over signs – any kind of cryptographic resolution – is, more than likely, only provisional and illusory. What seems likely to occur is hallucination, rather than a more standard metonymic chain or series of associations when looking at familiar objects and the suggestion of figure and ground as an imaginary distinction. So, while viewing the Turner is not essentially different from viewing representational form in terms of the creative workings of the mind of the poet, the viewer is more likely to project form (from the unconscious) and layer metaphors – like finding meaning in a Rorschach ink blot.

This is where that lower left corner of the painting becomes the focus. This area of detail suggests enough to allow the seeing eye/I to find meaning in the amorphousness, through an act, one might say, of pareidolia. Insofar as unintended forms are made visible, condensed, or layered over the indeterminacy, these are traces of the poet’s inner world, saying very little about Turner. This process might be sublimating, were it not for the dimension of time. Postmodern ekphrasis, as several critics have recognised, blurs distinctions between painting as a spatial form and poetry as a temporal form, and, in this instance – viewing the detail highlighted, at different moments, and through a succession of critical readings – yields different perspectives (are we looking at fish?, are we looking at sea-monsters?, are we looking at a monkey?). The point is that such guesswork or indecision undermines the effort to aestheticise or sublimate, to secure the usual verbal control over what is essentially unknown. The poet has a multiplicity of perspectives, especially if the ekphrasis evolves over several sittings. Something different could be seen each time, this phenomenological feature represented, hopefully, in the resulting poem – perhaps as a numbered series (Campbell 2009).              

Looking back at Turner’s Sunrise, the image goes some way to illustrate the imbrication, as outlined above, between the figurative and the non-figurative – though also between the actual and the notional. Certainly the painting exists (it hangs in the Clore gallery) and satisfies any expectation as a legitimate source of ekphrasis proper, on account largely of the art work’s status and place in the canon. At the same time (and a rather irreverent claim too, like saying the emperor is wearing very little), one might also say the image resembles a stain. More than just a stain on the art world – as was the case not only with Turner but also most notably with Whistler’s Nocturnes – the image is also not too different from a stain on a wooden table. The frame here – which is to refer to the gallery, the blurb, the actual frame, along with that posthumous title (another conjecture) – serves as a means of securing the aesthetic against the possible censure that the picture is unfinished or, more radically still, a whimsy, a fragment or failure. Likewise, understanding the image firstly within the genre of seascape, as a precursor to abstraction and so forth, conservatively limits perception by referring to a set of pre-existing artistic conventions. For the artist though (and the poet), as da Vinci knew, the blot or stain is the very beginning of what often later counts as a masterpiece. Or, in other words, the image that is sublimated has its roots in abjection, the seeming opposites set in a dialectic. If one can refer to alchemy here, what occurs must first draw on the formlessness which appears, at first glance, as worthless – the caput mortuum of the process.

What then do we call this kind of image? Perhaps it has no genre. Perhaps it is enough to say it tends towards obscurity (in terms of its place in art history) and it is abstract only insofar as its referents (a sunrise? sea monsters?) are reduced to their most basic elements. The sunrise is a smudge of luminescence, while the monsters are cleverly situated on the border between forms that can be recognised and the result of randomness (the very source of pareidolia). So the picture, especially the lower left corner, is not actually formless. Turner has applied artistic techniques and conventions as a basic underpainting – just like skillful free verse is suffused with formal dexterity. Alternatively, one can say the painting proceeds to work against any semblance of structure or figure. On this point, James Williams makes a convincing case – with reference to Deleuze and his thoughts on Turner – that these late canvases, rather than represent catastrophe, are more like catastrophes in themselves. Their general morphology is characterised by resistance to structure or systems of meaning (Williams 1997). It would seem appropriate, then, that any ekphrasis that has such an image as its starting point would likewise work against (without necessarily straying from) poetic form. This implies the poem rhymes with the canvas, while pursuing metaphorical leaps in and through the semblance (at least) of figures, which the human eye is always likely to recognise in the absence of signs.

Finally, there is some irony in the fact that this article is itself ekphrastic, its subject being the formless – its rendering governed (hopefully) by classical principles of clarity and order which are a lens through which the nebulousness of Sunrise might be made more speakable. In this way, the style of the writing is sublimating, filtered through the usual protocols of academic discourse. At the same time – just like the Turner is not quite formless – this style contains a trace of rhetoric which marks a deliberate perversion of the (often unconscious) pursuit of non-style, and, with it, an occlusion of the critic’s own psychical investments. Once the latter is incorporated into both the writing of poems and other genres that have an image as their focus, the sublimating impulse can be substituted for a translucent relationship between subject and object, where, rather than frame the image with formal constraints in a show of technical prowess, the writer invites the picture to shine through into the unconscious and elicit a multitude of meanings, there to be explored as an ongoing process. Only with this approach, one of mutuality between word and image, might the poet not only write about the painting, but also invite an illumination of the reasons why one was so intently drawn towards it in the first place.

Works cited: 


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Campbell, W 2009 ‘Postmodern Ekphrasis in the Poetry of Anne Compton, Anne Carson, and Anne Simpson’, Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 65, 9-21

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