This Christmas my husband surprised me with a street address number for our mailbox – a big, gold five inspired by a painting by the American artist, Charles Demuth (1883-1935). Demuth was friends with the American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Demuth’s painting, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, is an homage to his good friend and a reference to Williams’ poem, “The Great Figure.”
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
The first time I read Williams’s poem and saw a representation of Demuth’s painting along side it was back in the 70s in my freshman literature book, in a section labeled “art and poetry,” or something along those lines. The first pairing of poetry and painting in that book was the exquisite The Fall of Icarus by the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel (c. 1525-1569).
With it was the American poet, W.H. Auden’s W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” The book may have also included William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with The Fall of Icarus,” though I don’t fully recall.
What I do recall is that I kept that freshman literature book for years, all the way through graduate school in English, and then Art History. One might say I should put it on one of those lists that show up on social media from time to time – “name 10 books that changed your life.” Problem is, I have no idea the name of it or its publisher, but I have a very clear picture of it in my mind. After just a few years, the book would fall open to the section on art and poetry the way a cookbook always falls open to a favorite recipe.
By 1997, I was done with graduate school, and I was teaching freshman composition as an adjunct in Auburn University’s Department of English when I had the enormous good fortune to sit in on a poetry seminar. It was here that I first learned the word “ekphrasis.”
What a wonderful word. It comes from Greek , ek – “out,“ and phrasis – “to speak,” that is, “to speak out”. Or the verb ekphrazein, to “call something by its name.” Now generally understood to mean a poem that is a response to a visual work of art, its earlier meaning was more about highly visual description of an object, place, person. Yet, I am somehow unwilling to make the distinction – to name something, to describe it, is often the beginning of an interpretation.
I think of the task of naming my daughters. Were we not trying to place an interpretation? This child will grow up to inhabit the name Lillian Grace. And this one Isabelle Devi. And yet, when I looked at their infant faces, I was not only placing a kind of prayerful hope on them, but trying to find the name that most described what I believed was already there, already contained in their personalities. A way of fitting language to the complexity.
And when artists name their work. How disappointed I am when the label next to a work of art says Untitled. How unfulfilling. I want the artist to be both artist and poet. I want the name to speak out, have a similar reverberation as the art itself. But that is my expectation and desire, not necessarily what the artist might want. And that is where the poet comes in, or even the visitor to the art museum or gallery. The best poets and artists are the best observers.
For me, my desire to look at art is about interpreting what I see and my responses to what I see. The work I like tends to be either narrative, or evocative of the transcendental or contemplative. So for me, I choose an object I am drawn to and I try to put language to what I am seeing and to my experience of it. What is most satisfying is when the language that emerges seems to fit the object or my experience of it. And it is often poetic – both the language and the moment of the phrase’s emergence. It is like a lovely moment of connection to something outside of myself that tells me something about who I am.
My mailbox tells my mail carrier, “this is the location of number 5 on this street.” I hope she likes the new design. I have wanted a Demuth (ergo Williams) inspired mailbox for a long time. There are many websites that reproduce ekphrasic poems along with images the art that inspired them. I hope you will check them out, and I hope that discovering ekphrasis will prompt you to think a bit about the language that emerges the next time you spend time with art.