In the eighteenth book of the Iliad, after Hector has killed Patroclus and so spurred Achilles, Patroclus’s closest friend, back into battle, the epic’s eye turns from the give-and-take of warfare to the careful, considered description of an art object. Not just any art object, and to utilitarian observers no art object at all: replacement armor for Achilles (who had loaned Patroclus his own armor), lost it when Hector stripped it from Patroclus’s corpse. Thetis, Achilles’s mother, asks the divine blacksmith Hephaestus to craft a new set for her son in his grief. The god grants this. In doing so he transforms what in other circumstances, other epics, might have been a routine plot point into an immortal moment in the history of Greek poetry. For the shield he makes is unusual: in nine concentric circles it tells of ancient cosmology, of how the Greeks conceived the universe and life on earth. Homer dedicates hundreds of lines to the description of this shield, so that in coming to understand a matter of epic fact—how the shield that Hephaestus is crafting actually looks to the characters—we’re transported beyond fact and into rapturous communion with this fictive sculpture, as, we suppose, Thetis is in the very moments the shield is first shown to her.
An artwork within an artwork, a vision within a vision: the luxurious, if not decadent, description of Achilles’s new shield marks the emergence of the rhetorical technique of ekphrasis (the ancient Greek word for “description” from the prefix for “out of” and the verb “to tell”) in the Western canon. In the middle of the twentieth century, after countless instances of visual art and literature fused by writers attuned to language’s multisensory capacities, Western ekphrasis cycled back to its origins. In his poem “The Shield of Achilles,” W.H. Auden took up the role of Hephaestus, rewriting Homer’s passage—and resmithing the shield—so that scenes of antiquity’s Golden Age, themselves not entirely untroubled, were replaced with the hellscapes of the world wars.
This is old news to plenty of readers and writers. I recapitulate it because of my belief in the importance of history for contemporary writing pedagogy, and because there seem to me a few aspects of the Homeric passage that are telling but often overlooked. The one I want to focus on here is the way—well, one way—that the passage constructs the act of looking, which in this case is constituted by the interpretation and appreciation of art. The imagined shield that inspires Homer’s ekphrasis itself originates in the conjunction of two viewpoints and wills, those of Thetis and Hephaestus. The artwork’s qualities and powers are embedded, however complexly, in a social web rather than confined to a closed channel linking a single viewer, or narrator, to a single thing viewed. Thetis catalyzes the shield’s creation while Hephaestus conceives and executes the design, but as the narrative’s speaker assembles the shield for us—assembles what is already, in the world of the Iliad, a complete physical object and finished product—there is the sense that both figures have entered into a unified act of perception, and that what unifies them is what’s perceived.
With this exercise—which can be adapted for the teaching of prose or nonfiction writing as well as poetry, and which can be used to relate most other art forms besides the visual to writing—instructors can test this idea of collaborative or communal seeing. Students respond to visual artworks that other students have found meaningful or provocative in order to create a collaborative poem or literary work. The instructor plays a variable but crucial role in facilitating the encounters that lead up to the culminating stages of the project.
While part of me cringes at any pedagogical appeal based on what students find popular or appealing, it seems to me an incidental benefit to ekphrastic writing exercises—rather than a foundational reason to pursue them—that today’s undergraduates are probably among the most visually literate generations to ever live. I admit that the dispositions and abilities I’m calling “visual literacy” may differ slightly from what an idealized version of that term refers to, for I suspect much of the fluidity and dexterity with which students, not to mention myself, navigate visual and multimedia sources is subconscious and commercially dictated (and perhaps more insidious for being so). Still, part of the pleasure of working with writing students in image-based contexts is seeing this ingrained practical knowledge become conscious practical knowledge, and become so in a community environment, where their peers are working through the same issues in their poems, stories, and essays.
But the ability to engage works of art linguistically, intellectually, and emotionally is one thing; it’s quite another to reckon with someone else’s engagement with, or even basic attraction to, an artwork. By asking each student to contemplate and then write about a work of art that they did not select—they will have received their image from another classmate—this exercise aims to cultivate empathy in a broad sense of the term: an inventive faculty that is both imaginative and ethical, a means by which students can project themselves into sympathy with artworks and artists they may never have made contact with before. In my experience, exercises that incorporate chance procedures, and so vulnerability and commitment, have beneficial consequences for classroom camaraderie, as does the idea of producing a collaborative work in general. Whatever else it might help students realize about poetry, visual art, and the relation between the two, hopefully this exercise helps them to set down their own shields for a time—long enough to look at them, anyway.
A note for students with disabilities. In its unmodified form, this exercise relies in a fundamental way on students’ visual capacities and so excludes certain students. Although the term ekphrasis is most often used to denote literary descriptions of visual art, I see no reason to think the term not capacious enough to refer to descriptions of nonvisual art. A student might, for example, submit a song or song excerpt in lieu of an image; another student may be asked to provide a bit of music or recorded sound for that student to then respond to in their composition. If a nonvisual student wishes, a visually capable student may assist them by verbally describing the image their classmate has been assigned, and the nonvisual student may submit an image they have seen or know of, or which they have imagined and can verbally describe. With help and accommodations from their instructor, any student should be able to participate fully in this exercise.
- Decide if the exercise will have an overarching theme, motif, or focus to act as a stimulus. The instructor can do this, or it can be done collaboratively by the instructor and students. Another approach is to decide on a title before any further work is done; the students then select images, and later compose their pieces, with the title in mind.
- Each student privately selects an image in relation to the stimulus, or—if the approach is general—an image that interests them. These can be images of artworks, photos taken on a smartphone, found materials, etc. Anything that can be photographed or saved as an image file will serve. It’s important that students don’t share their images with each other at the outset; part of the allure of the exercise is the anonymity of the image each student receives.
- Each student emails their image, along with its title and the creator’s name, to the instructor.
- The instructor matches each student with an image submitted by another student. The instructor sends each student their assigned image. (Instructors can decide if they want to send recipients the creator’s name and title of their piece at this stage. One benefit of excluding it is that doing so may prevent the intrusion of socially conditioned responses, assumptions, and expectations about artists and modes of art from the exercise. A student may respond differently to, for example, a photograph they know was made by Ansel Adams than the same photograph presented without knowledge of its maker, even if they suspect it is Adams.)
- Students compose a set amount of text in response to the image they’ve received. In a poetry class, this can mean lines, stanzas, or even whole poems. Students may be asked to write intuitively in response to their image in whatever mode and style suits them best, or more specific instructions can be incorporated. In a class focused on creative nonfiction, for instance, students may be asked to write about a memory that their image prompts them to recall (in a way that either does or doesn’t involve explicitly discussing the image itself), or they may be asked to find out whatever they can about the biography of the artist and connect that in a nonreductive way with the artwork (in this case, students will need to be given the artists’ names). Another possibility involves asking students to write a paragraph speculating on why their classmate—at this point anonymous—chose the artwork they did, speaking in their voice. The instructor can choose to incorporate additional formal constraints, as in the collaborative poem reproduced in the example exercise. Most of these approaches, and their modifications, can be made to work for any genre of writing with a little adaptation.
- Students email the instructor their completed piece.
- The collaborative piece is then assembled. Several methods can be used. The lines, stanzas, or poems can be sequenced randomly; alphabetically, by the students’ last names; or, as is the case with my example, in the order they were written. If the group is small and tight-knit, this last method can allow the whole poem to be simultaneously composed and assembled in a shared electronic document. Students paste their contributions into the document as they complete them, stitching together the finished collaborative piece. If the instructor wants to get the students thinking about questions of sequence and arrangement, they might lead a discussion with the class about how to best order the parts of the poem or series.
- Lastly, the students and instructor decide how the images will be displayed in relation to the finished piece. At this point, the instructor may disclose the makers and titles of the images, and—if this seems productive—match the images to the students who provided them. The class may decide that the poem functions better or worse with the images paired directly to the component of the poem that they inspired; they may want to assemble the images into a collage that accompanies the piece; or they may wish to exclude the images altogether, noting in footnotes or an acknowledgment paragraph which images were used in the composition of the poem.
In a modified version of this exercise—used to produce the example poem that follows—students may select the image they want to use as the stimulus for their poem from out of the pile of images submitted by the class. In the example, the Bucknell fellows and I pasted links to online versions of the artworks we wanted others to write from in a shared document; people chose their images on a first come, first served basis, and when they had chosen them would type their name next to the link. One could easily imagine a physical analog to this digital grab bag: students bringing printed and cut-out images to class, placing them on a table, and one at a time visiting the table and picking one. In another more demanding version, students might compose their stanzas in order, so that the second student composes their stanza in response not only to their image but to the first student’s composition, and so on.
Example of the Exercise
My peers and I at the 2012 Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets used a version of this exercise to write the poem “Ekphrasis,” reproduced here. The notes that follow the poem were printed with it in The June Anthology 2012, Bucknell University’s publication containing the works of the fellows for that year. The notes placed after the poem illustrate one way the mechanics of the poem’s creation can be made clear to readers.
The last tall gable:
come in under its graceful slope & sprawl
to study wonder—accept
this shelter from the mismatched celdama
which is the taste of carnivals …
Perhaps you too have
cupped your soul over your mouth, staved off an
army by slipping a hand
under your skirt; the blacksmith’s forge is cooler.
Steel knows more wretched company.
To be isolate:
forward lean: a reticulum: legend
of gunpowder in the cough:
the burning is green over the ornery
houses: wrench & wait & what for?
a set of wings or
your mouth, trying to open from its cage
of metal lies, homespun tricks /
keep breathing this way and you’ll become the rust /
galvanization of yourself
It is enough if
After the flames have crested, fallen, you
Sever your hands, my body,
A peach from its skin, if you leave me wanting
Charred out house again
The audience thinks
Does he wear a mask? Is the eye my heart?
And chalk men, thin, rustle by
to watch the birds go at the bloody and weight-
bearing planet with their talons.
The word cannot be
the unword—the landscape of language clipped
and scissored into foothills,
topographic lexicons—the minutiae
we parse, the layered and the layers.
Keep your eyes quiet,
do not pretend to be open-hearted.
Loosen your lungs from their cage.
Ache, pity. Rattle breaths from your throat, swallow
your loveliness and bear the word.
of atoms feels better in foil. Better
in eggshells, plastic, nylon.
Give it a thing; it gleans its own distinction.
Then give it a name. Call it I.
Authors of the stanzas and the visual artworks they worked with, in sequence:
- David Moffat: “Carnival” by Kurt Schwitters
- Carley Besl: “Polka Dots” by Francesca Woodman
- Andrew David King: “On Signal Hill, Overlooking Long Beach, California” by Robert Adams
- Caroline Kessler: “wing4 <br/> elevator” by Elizabeth Turk
- Matt Beard: “Apocalypse Cat” by anonymous
- Isabel Neal: “Mimicry” by Roger Ballen
- Zachariah Paul McVicker: “Book Autopsies” by Brian Dettmer
- Kenzie Rowlett: “The Birth of Speech” by anonymous
- Mallory Spadaro: “Night Masks” by Sophie Miles
Each stanza was composed with a syllabic scheme of 5/10/7/11/8.
Andrew David King is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he is a Teaching-Writing Fellow. He has received fellowships from Bucknell University, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and New York University–Shanghai, where he was a Global Academic Fellow. His poems, letters, essays, and interviews have appeared in Best New Poets, POETRY, ZYZZYVA, The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere.