Commentary on Ekphrasis & Steven Carter’s “Velásquez’ Maids of Honor”
One doesn’t see an abundance of ekphrastic haibun, but they do appear from time to time in various journals and collections. It's my view that ekphrasis in haibun composition could, and even should play a more prominent role in our collected literature. This issue with five ekphrasis pieces by Steven Carter and one by Susanna Lang, paves the way for a commentary on ekphrasis. I've elected to focus on one piece, Carter’s “Velásquez’ Maids of Honor” in order to gain an insight into one approach to ekphrastic writing and as a springboard to discussing the technique of ekphrastic haibun.
The word “Ekphrasis” comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively. Initially, Greek philosophers used the practice of ekphrasis to expand their students’ rhetorical repertoires by learning to bring the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing or oration. (1)
Currently ekphrasis refers to the use of a writer’s own literary genre (e.g., free verse poetry or haibun) to reflect on another art form (e.g., a painting or a stained glass window or a sculpture or even another writer’s poetry). (2) Where a free verse or a haibun poet might pen a piece about a walk in a wildflower meadow (nature’s artwork), an ekphrastic piece might be about a watercolor of a wildflower meadow (a painter’s artwork).
Before reading Carter’s “Velásquez’ Maids of Honor”, I took a look at the painting, and suggest you do the same. What do you see? How does it affect you? What story do you imagine?
Then I recommend you read Carter’s haibun:
Carter approaches ekphrastic haibun as a storyteller, starting with a focus on the painting and, consistent with haibun form, shifting to a narrative of his own life – or to a persona he has adopted. (3) He begins with what we might expect of ekphrasis, descriptions of the image itself: a little girl; brown eyes; a princess; angel hair. But he steps well beyond the what we might expect of ‘descriptive detail’ in that he also includes inferences, fictions if you will, about the girl’s disposition and present circumstances: eyes sparkling with curiosity; lips no-nonsense, ready to purse; something not quite right in her world. And he forecasts her future: she’ll be a force to be reckoned with when she grows up; This sweetheart will break hearts: from failed love, no: from political contingencies, yes; she’ll marry whomever it’s expedient to marry. Then stepping into that aspect of haibun that is about the self and that is even ‘confessional,’ he shifts from the painting itself to his first experiences of youthful love and to feelings that “… are still germinating.”
What’s in an Image?
One approach to producing or commenting on ekphrastic haibun is that of psychological projection. (4) While projection is depicted as an unconscious defense mechanism, projection can also be consciously used to explore one's own psyche. Thus, in the way that a psychologist uses a Rorschach Inkblot (5) to surface a patient’s imaginings and emotional state, a writer can consciously use his or her projections onto an artwork image as material for an ekphrastic haibun.
Thus, Carter’s piece can be seen as a projection of self onto the Velázquez image. Although it’s a complex image with many figures, he clearly was drawn to the golden-haired girl, an obvious center of attention. The eyes of different viewers may be drawn to different aspects of the image. Mine also went to the set of characters surrounding the girl, particularly the shadowy painter-observer in the left background (a Velásquez self portrait), the man and woman reflected in the mirror (King Philip IV and his second wife Mariana of Austria), the man in the doorway (her older uncle and cousin, Leopold I, whom she will soon marry) and the dwarfed lady-in-waiting. While Carter built his story around the girl, what might my story or your story be? What are our projections? Were I to write about the Velásquez image, I’d need to ask myself, “What is it about the artist in the background, the man and woman, and the dwarfed lady-in-waiting, the shadowy male figure, that attracts my attention? The viewer’s attention might even be attracted to minor details, for example, the red cross the painter has placed on his tunic. What’s the significance of that? My answers would lead to my storyline and to my own personalized account.
Carter’s Poetic Touch
Of course there’s more to ekphrastic haibun than descriptive material and a storyline stemming from what one imagines about a work of art. David Cobb has written that, "Spiess (echoed by Bruce Ross) complains that so far in Western haibun there has been "too much recording of stimuli rather than creative in-depth work. The 'haibun of a recent outing' is liable to be an unrooted and disorganised as holiday snaps. What we have need of, as Japanese haibun show us, is journeys into cultural memory, into our roots and into our souls." (6)
Carter has gone well beyond presenting us with a snapshot recording of the artwork. He utilizes unexpected shifts from describing the painting itself, to interpretation and projection onto elements in the image, to relating experiences about his past and present. He also offers evocative phrasings. A passage that comes to mind is:
Once upon a summer seeds were planted in my heart: still germinating as we speak, still summoning an ironic smile when I recall the poet’s line: I want to ask Christ to give me back my childhood.
Balance and Accuracy
Carter’s approach to this particular piece allows an examination of two issues: How important is accuracy about the artwork and what’s the balance of storyline focus between the artist/artwork and the writer?
Carter provides scant information about the painting and some of it strikes me as inaccurate given what we know about the painting and princess. He tells us that: She’s a princess; She’ll be a force to be reckoned with when she grows up: This sweetheart will break hearts: from failed love, no: from political contingencies, yes—she’ll marry whomever it’s expedient to marry.
Unlike some paintings on which an ekphrastic piece could be penned, there is an abundance of historical information about both the painting and the princess. True, she is the Princess Margarita, daughter of Philip IV, King of Spain; and yes, like all royalty of her era, hers was a political marriage to her 11-year-older maternal uncle and paternal cousin, Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. But Carter makes it sound as if she lived a long life of broken hearts and failed romantic interludes, whereas according to one account, (7) they shared a number of interests, especially theatre and music, and were very happy together for the years of their marriage. As for long life, she died in childbirth at 21 years of age.
So how much projective fiction should we accept in ekphrastic haibun? On the one hand, for purposes of Carter’s storyline a great amount of history and detail about the painting might be a distraction and historical accuracy might not be important to the piece in his writer's mind. On the other hand, I’d like to feel more comfortable that the bits of proffered history are accurate.
After presenting what might be considered minimal descriptive information about the artwork – a focus almost entirely on the young princess with golden curls – Carter then ties that one image to his own youthful romantic interludes and his wistfulness about lost possibilities as he looks back on his life. So I wonder whether any image, painting or photograph of a young girl could have triggered Carter's recollections. Indeed, Carter does just this sort of thing by starting “Honey of Generation” with a “crinkled photo of the Mormon leader Brigham Young.” (8)
So what should be the balance between artwork and writer? There is no rule or guideline on this issue nor on other issues related to haibun. As Jeffrey Woodward has put it: "Haibun as a genre is fluid and ill-defined, volatile and subject daily to change ..." (9) For now, it's up to editors to decide whether to publish a work and readers to enjoy it or not. A close reading of the five pieces by Carter and the one by Lang in this issue shows that there can be great deal of variation in the balance between information about the artwork and the writer.
Who is the Reader?
The extent to which an ekphrastic haibun is enjoyed or found wanting will depend on the characteristics of the reader. As someone not steeped in art history and technique, my focus is more on balance than accuracy, more on the extent to which the writer has dealt both with the painting and with himself. On the other hand, an art historian may want the details about the image to be highly accurate. In similar vein, as a film buff, when I see a film about a historical figure – the current one is “Lincoln” – I want a very high degree of accuracy. Otherwise I’m uncomfortable with the film. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” for example, bothered me because Stone obviously took liberties with the historical facts, including the unfounded idea that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was involved in a coup d'état. (10)
The way that Carter moves from the painting to referencing himself gives us but one perspective on how to pen an ekphrastic piece.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are many ways to compose ekphrastic poetry, some of which can be found in his other pieces and Susanna Lang’s piece in this issue. To further explore the 'how to' of ekphrastic poetry, a variety of approaches are outlined on the ReadWriteThink website. (11)
As poet Martin Porter put it: “Finding ‘stuff’ to write about can be difficult. The notions of ‘write what you see around you’ and 'write from experience’ are all good in principle, but when these sources seem exhausted – dry or repetitious and unchallenging – it can be useful to take a break and borrow material from somewhere else.” (12)
I would go a step further. Suitable subjects are any that touch the soul of the writer. Since artwork is soulful expression, a personal reaction to artwork is as suitable a subject as any other. Since humans first began producing art on the walls of caves, we have accumulated a rich abundance of visual art. It’s our human heritage, designed for our reactions. Why not use it?
Steven Carter, Velásquez’ Maids of Honor
Brown, luminous, sparkling with curiosity, the eyes have it.
But the little girl’s pretty angel hair—she is a princess—belies those no-nonsense lips ready to purse; something’s not quite right in her world.
Hello? She’ll be a force to be reckoned with when she grows up.
This sweetheart will break hearts: from failed love, no: from political contingencies, yes—she’ll marry whomever it’s expedient to marry. But there’s more: Velázquez was the first artist to use light as a creative medium—for him illumination doesn’t embellish the world, it is the world.
If this sounds like Impressionism, not to worry: Monet and Renoir did their homework in Velásquez.
wings open to the moon
a lace-wing moth
. . . My heart was broken, or bent at least, when I was 12 years old. The girl was no Spanish princess—ah, but she had angel hair—and she taught me a lifelong lesson: Suffering, like art, doesn’t evolve. I was in as much pain then, sixty years ago, as I would be later on in college, when a dark-haired girl from San Diego pulled the plug on our love affair.
Once upon a summer seeds were planted in my heart: still germinating as we speak, still summoning an ironic smile when I recall the poet’s line:
I want to ask Christ to give me back my childhood.
This is the end
Acknowledgment: My thanks to Jeffrey Woodward, Linda Papanicolaou, Dru Philippou and Garry Eaton for their helpful comments on this commentary and on Carter’s ekphrasis. This is not to suggest that they share the viewpoints I’ve expressed herein.
1. “Ekphrasis,” Wikipedia, paraphrase taken on March 22, 2013.
3. Of course, the information about self in Carter’s piece may or may not reflect events in his own life. In haibun with its emphasis on self-disclosure and confession, we all embellish and change certain facts in order to make our work readable. And at times we choose to take on a persona, that may or may not be close to home, as our mode of expression. I did not want to spend time on these issues in this commentary.
4. Jennifer Beauman, “Psychological Projection,” Taken on March 28, 2013 from the Lifescript Website. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_projection
5. “The Rorschach Inkblot is primarily used as a device through which a psychologist assesses the personality and emotional functioning of a patient.” Taken on March 28, 2013 from Kendra Kerry, “Psychology” on the About.com website. http://psychology.about.com/od/rindex/g/rorschach-ink.htm
6. David Cobb, "A Few Timely Heresies About English Haibun," Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011. http://haibuntoday.com/ht54/article_cobb_AFewTimelyHeresies.html
7. Margaret Theresa of Spain, Wikipedia, taken on March 26, 2013.
8. Steven Carter, “Honey of Generation,” CHO 8:4 January 2013.
9. Jeffrey Woodward, "Haibun Today? and Your Point Would Be....?" Haibun Today, November 22, 2007. http://haibuntoday.blogspot.ca/2007/11/editorial-haibun-today-and-your-point.html
10. “JFK”, Wikipedia, taken March 27, 2013.
11. “Perspectives in Writing Ekphrastic Poetry,” ReadWriteThink Website, taken March 27, 2013. http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson1093/PerspectivesinWritingEkphrastic.pdf
12. Martin Porter, “Notes on Ekphrasis.” Posted December 19, 2012 on Poetry Notes and Jottings Blog.