Ekphrastic poetry has come to be defined as poems written about works of art; however, in ancient Greece, the term ekphrasis was applied to the skill of describing a thing with vivid detail. One of the earliest examples of ekphrasis can be found in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, in which the speaker elaborately describes the shield of Achilles in nearly 150 poetic lines:
And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield,
blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface,
And he forged on the shield two noble cities filled
with mortal men. With weddings and wedding feasts in one
And he forged the Ocean River’s mighty power girdling
round the outmost rim of the welded indestructible shield.
(The Iliad, Book 18, lines 558–707)
In addition to the descriptions of a work of art, an ekphrastic poem usually includes an exploration of how the speaker is impacted by his or her experience with the work. This week, I encourage you to test out this fun poetry form!
To get you started, here’s some of my favorite paintings I studied in my Art History class this semester.
Written by Ellie M.
This will be the last R2 blog post of the spring semester, as classes are now over for the 2016-2017 school year. We'll have more blog posts after the summer. Thank you for reading! We've loved sharing our thoughts with you.
Yesterday before the rains came, my friend studied first the darkening sky, then me.
“If we time it right, we can walk to Skyspace and get caught in the rain.”
“Let me get my shoes,” I said.
We walked, got poured on, sat in Skyspace for a while, talking about the way the water ran off the roof and about the respect we have for people who not only know what they like but also do it; we talked about why introspection does not inherently indicate a humanities major and why sometimes “low-class” art is the stuff that sticks with you; we talked about going home and not going home and birds.
It got me thinking about how fast-paced my life has become - every conversation serves a purpose, now, where I'm either searching for information or trying to make someone laugh, but there's that lovely forgotten in-between space where rainy days and late-night chats reside, driven not out of a need to vent but a mess of ideas and words that have stuck themselves in your head and need to come out.
There is an art to these conversations, much like there is an art to storytelling. Words become images. Thoughts form of their own accord, just like stories take on lives of their own. These conversations are hard to put down. They're self-propelling and wandering, both passionate and impassioning. The good ones leave you thinking long, long after the words have been said.
Communication in college trenches tends so frequently to be a one-sided affair. Here is what I think. This is why I'm right. But there is so much beauty in discovering what collaboration can produce, in equalizing the listening and the responding.
Conversations are a lot like stories. If you let them happen to you and ascribe value to them the way we carry a story's moral or quotable moments with us, you'll recognize the narrative, the catharsis, the conscious escape that we find in books. It's all there in the everyday, in the sparkling opportunities we have to make the mundane something extraordinary, something unusual, something important. This is important. Listen, but only until you must speak.
And now, you must speak.
Written by Kristen H.
One of my favorite things about writing and literature in general is that it’s always a description of the world in all its crazy complexities. Sure, you could be reading about hobbits and dragons, or journeying through intense space caves, or trying to sort out the thoughts of an unreliable-narrator-slash-serial-killer-maybe, but no matter where you are, you’re being constantly bombarded and confronted with these subconscious little blips of humanity. That’s why it becomes something of a social responsibility of a writer to make sure they’re actually describing humanity – in all its messed-up glory, you could say, or in a way that’s just right. Plus, Hollywood has been calling for a more representative sampling of the world, and literature can do that, too.
I find my writing enhanced with every single class I take; the magic of education (especially humanities education, sorry at my STEM-y friends) lies in the ways it really unpacks the things we take for granted all the time. I write near-exclusively in worlds that aren’t this one (yeah, that means fantasy). With every political science class I take, I think more critically about the social structures at work. With every English class, I’m thinking about what people can read through the words I choose, and the intricacies and implications of how my writing will read against the social and cultural map we’re up against. Sometimes, I feel like I’ll never get enough of the knowledge of this world to make a perfect equivalency in the pages of a book.
And yeah, because none of us do. In fact, research doesn’t need to be some complicated thing. I don’t – as a friend of mine explained to me recently – need to take a full-blown seminar on immigration just to write about an immigrant. But, I do need to think about what I’m writing, and I need to know the realities of what’s out there. And that’s where the rest of my recommendations come in: there are a whole scope of blogs and websites in the world that are explicitly designed to give you those quick research tips, those actualities and stereotype-busters that will make you a better, well-researched writer.
So, here you go – do research fast!!! with these quick and easy links:
Most of these are unapologetically Tumblr blogs, because I take my writing tips in small doses while trying to fall asleep and wake up.
Research is a really weird thing. It can be sparked by inspiration just from visiting a museum, it can be applied from a semester of a research project, or it can plop down from above thanks to a simple interview or visit to a webpage. And it makes a big difference in how you’ll feel in your own work. So, when the writer’s block hits or you just want to procrastinate some school work, maybe turn your attention to the research ahead of you, and see what happens.
Written by Erika S.
Finding my voice has proven to be the most difficult part about being a writer. Since I started writing a few years ago, I have been tormented with the unreasonable fear that I sound like whoever I am reading at the moment. And often when I write, I experience the chiasmatic sensation of exhilaration and plagiarism: it excites me to be intensely engaged with a text and to recognize work being done on the syntactical level; however, I tend to feel like a fraud, a literary pirate…and an unsuccessful one at that…when I catch myself using a particular author’s style or lexicon (Confession: I have cribbed my punctuation habits from an amalgamation of Pynchon and Faulkner—hence the ellipses…dashes…semi-colons…all working to protract tiresome digressions.) Anyway, it always takes some time to sort through these contrary feelings. I tell myself that everyone learns by reading those who come before them. I try to ease my anxieties about literary piracy by calling transgressions ‘references’ or ‘allusions.’ But the self-doubt and self-consciousness remains, and I find myself delaying projects in order to more fully develop my own distinct style. I think that the paralysis induced by self-doubt comes from a fear of observation. Whatever I may tell myself about learning from mistakes, my ego always finds a way to make its voice heard; so rather than venturing out on my own—to make mistakes and hopefully discover something about my writing along the way—I use my favorite author’s as blueprints for style, imagery and diction. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, I feel as if it has hampered my ability to sit down at my computer and write on a regular basis.
I think that this sensation taps into something commonly experienced by those of us who write. On one hand there are the constant confrontations with failure and the subsequent fear of ineptitude. And this is made worse by the fact that we are not the arbiters of our work; rather, our work, an extension of ourselves, stands bare and defenseless against the criticisms of a detached audience. And what worse criticism could be leveled than banality or pedantry? I don’t know about you, but it terrifies me to think that I may be received as unoriginal. Which is why I have committed myself to a new exercise that will hopefully develop confidence in my voice independent from those who influence me. But first, I would like to demonstrate how engaging with an author can re-shape prose.
I’m currently working on my capstone essay about the process of myth-making in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, particularly how the narrators construct representations of black and female subjectivities that ensure subordination. I am using a theoretical framework, as laid out in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, to discuss overlaying systems (culture, race, gender, sexuality, law) and the multilateral exertion of power in the Postbellum South. The idea has proven to be sufficiently difficult to untangle without worrying about how the two authors, Faulkner and Foucault, have influenced my writing style. Both authors craft long, winding sentences that operate by circumlocution rather than strict definition. What I mean is that they dance around what they are trying to say; they surround their desired concept rather than trying to pin it down with a needle. This style does not work well in a form that requires concision. Nevertheless, I find myself preyed upon by paronomastic predilections, my love for language and alliteration, and the unwinding beauty of thoughts scrolled down screen—a stream of syllogisms in need syntactically for structure that mediates and facilitates the care and complexity manifest in its discursive elements—like the ramifications of warbling wistaria vine twice-bloomed in breezes still of summer and reaching not only for the underlaid lattice but by trace scent as well…miasmal-distillant: an effluvium moving as if a shadow, nearly unobservable, but essential for the auditur to truly know what lay before them.
Lately I have written a lot of sentences like that one…and they typically take so long to craft that I lose whatever momentum had propelled me to the keyboard in the first place. What’s worse, I lost my train of thought while working on that just now…so forgive me if the rest of this blog post goes to shit. Anyway, while that sentence explains how syntax and imagery can enliven whatever you are trying to say, it defeats itself on the surface by applying the very strategy that it touts. It requires to be unwound, and the influence of Faulkner and Foucault’s writing styles have had a negative impact in this scenario. Repeatedly, these types of mistakes remind me that I have yet to establish an independent voice. I lack confidence in my own prose that should act to resist the impulse to imitate other authors. So to remedy this, I have purchased a cloth-bound notebook (this way I can slip it between books on my bookshelf and not fear someone cracking it open.) I have promised myself to write in it every day for the next month, at which point I will assess the viability of this technique in establishing my own voice. I have given myself a few ground rules to make sure that I avoid some of the pitfalls that I noted above:
For me, disconnection is paramount in this exercise. I cannot try to do this on my computer because I will violate every rule stated above. These rules intend to promote continuity of thought and discourse, which I believe to be fundamental in mapping out thought-processes and idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, should you want to adopt this idea, adaptation is obviously permitted. I work best in the mornings, so I use that time to my advantage. Others may prefer to work late at night. I prefer sleep. Finally, one last point about finding an independent voice: influence from other writers will be and should be apparent. I don’t want to be misunderstood as thinking that a writer’s voice must exist in a vacuum. Community and communication exist before, and are essential to independent expression. It would be foolish to believe that a truly singular voice could exist in language—a system that operates by reference. My own qualm comes from too heavy a reliance on certain authors’ style, but I will gladly use my best Faulkner impression when the mode seems appropriate. I just don’t want to spend my life as a writer chasing ghosts.
Written by Caleb S.
Ciao from Rome! I’ve been in Italy for about three months now, and seeing Kristen’s post last week about children’s literature got me thinking about how much the books I read growing up have embellished my study abroad experience.
I, too, was one of those middle schoolers who spent her summer days surrounded by piles of books at the library, devouring as many novels as I possibly could. High school summers were spent the same way - though then it was usually reading in front of the pool instead of the library - and though I no longer have time to be the voracious reader I once was, I still try to spend my winter breaks curled up with good books as much as I can. I read so much because I love it, but I never could have imagined how much those books I read for fun would contribute to my travels abroad.
I’ve found that in Europe, where the history is so prevalent and so engrained in each city, you really are at a disadvantage if you aren’t already well-versed in a city’s culture when you travel there. More and more I find myself hearkening back to books I read to help me recall the history; interestingly enough, some of the novels that have provided me with the most background when I’ve been traveling are just random historical fiction books I read as a middle schooler.
In Berlin, Escape to West Berlin, a novel I read back in 4th grade, was my first ever introduction to the tragedy surrounding the Berlin Wall, and I recounted many of the scenes in the book as we walked through Checkpoint Charlie, East Side Gallery, and the Topography of Terror on the trip. Copenhagen has me recounting Number the Stars, a book I read over and over in 3rd grade, which opened my eyes to the Nazi regime and, on a lighter note, gave me an overwhelming desire to visit the Tivoli Gardens one day. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank at a young age, also in 3rd grade, made my walk through the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam incredibly moving. The classic fantasy novel The Thief Lord has made me all the more excited to walk through the magical canals on my upcoming trip to Venice.
There are so many books I’ve read later in life - adult historical fiction or non-fiction books - that have also made a significant contribution to my understanding of the history in each new city to which I travel, but for some reason those children’s novels are so ingrained in my mind that it is those books that truly make my sightseeing all the more rewarding. Thus, I highly encourage anyone traveling or studying abroad to revisit those historical fiction books you loved as a child before you go! You can read all the guide books in the world, but I can say from experience that nothing beats the excitement of visiting a country or a tourist spot you’ve been reading about since you were a child.
Written by Bailey T.
Over Spring Break, my friend and I set ourselves a reading challenge: to complete all 1,079 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest within the 10 days of academic rest. She finished it all in a week and I just finished it three days ago. Regardless of my technical failure, finishing the book at all felt like a win, and I would highly recommend it.
The book is a collection of vignettes concerning an interconnected group of Bostonians in an alternative near-future, in which the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have joined to become the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). The novel is in part narrated by Hal Incandenza, a 17 year-old tennis prodigy and student. His sections expose the intense pressure of the competitive tennis environment and reveal the peculiarities of the Incandenza family. Other sections of the book focus on various characters in recovery at a nearby halfway house. There is also a persistent subplot concerning a group of Canadian separatists who carry out their terror plots using wheelchairs. Part family drama, part dystopian fiction, and part absurdity, Infinite Jest is entirely unique. It is deeply complex, but wholly entertaining.
A benefit of the book’s length and complexity is that just by sheer probability, it is likely to hit on something that appeals to you. Topics that are covered range from depression, to tennis, to addiction, to U.S.-Canada relations. There will be sections that you will think are just plain weird, but there will be other sections that will really speak to you. There’s really something in here for everybody.
However, as a person who likes to “get” books, this one was a real challenge. It is not the kind of book that allows you to read it once and put it away. It’s impossible to catch everything on the first read.
Falling down some Google rabbit holes helped clarify things a little. There are dedicated groups of “Jesters” who have invested a lot of time into trying to make sense of it. Some people publish different theories about the implications of the book’s ending. Other people have tried to categorize the information in the book to try to find patterns. There are maps marking the different locations in the book, and glossaries that list every appearance of every character and image. People have written graduate theses on this novel. If anyone tells you they totally understand this book, they’re probably lying to you.
On a personal note, this self-imposed challenge really reminded me of why I started to love books. I missed the feeling of reading like a kid, reading late at night under the covers, the way that books created entire worlds in my head. I even missed the way that reading took work because I might not know what some of the words meant. I didn’t understand everything, and there was no pressure to understand anything. I just read, and I liked the characters that I liked, and certain things appealed to me, and occasionally I stumbled on a sentence, but I really loved it.
I think a lot of times reading critically becomes a single-minded search for the correct, smart take-away. You need to finish the book, only to turn around and reduce the experience to its agreed-upon themes. Postmodern novels are great because no one fully understands them. Criticism has not yet condensed into the kind of neatly-packaged bullet points that suit a high school English class. There is no “right” thing to take away from the book. If you take away anything at all, you’ve succeeded. And believe me, you will take something away from this one.
I would highly recommend the book if you're looking to read something really different or looking for something to push your limits. You don't have to read the whole thing in a week (although it is humanly possible, if that appeals to you). And when you finish, regardless of when that is, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Written by Megan G.
I share my body with an angel / of light who sunbursts / on my horizons at dusk
- Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton