What we have the right to (ekphrasis, epigraphs, artistic responsibility…)

Literature cannot exist in a vacuum. Everything which is written and put out into the world is a product of a history of other works; it comments on, and is shaped by the culture and context which created. I’ve been thinking about this more than usual after David Herd’s visit. Through is grounded in a place, in a context. Herd saw something happening in the world which demanded to be recognized, recorded, and he felt the need to do what he could to bring it to light through his work. We talked with him in class about what we, as poets have the right to write about. By the end of his visit, after hearing him read and speak to the work he has done on Refugee Tales, it became clear to me it was less about a right, but about a responsibility to say what is difficult.

This is a scary thought, but for me, it is also a critical directive at a point in my development as a poet where I often feel my work falling short. That is, I find myself slipping into the same habits, writing what feels at times like self-involved slop. It is valuable to be reminded that we are not only allowed to look outside ourselves, but that we must do so.

I was interested in Herd’s use of allusion and quotation. Among other things, Through is littered with the scattered words and smallest phrases from Chaucer. The lack of epigraph is due to the fact that Chaucer is well known enough to be recognized easily, and that his work is so obviously tied to the setting of the book (Canterbury). However, it also lines up with Herd’s assertion that he did not intend for one to need to understand the reference, but rather it had to do with the history of place and history of language itself, as a way of fighting back against the harmful use of language which his work confronts. The fact that Herd could use Chaucer in this manner interested me.

I’ve always had a problem with that sort of thing. I’ve always thought it was a ballsy move to go and connect your work to other peoples, and I was sure that ekphrasis and epigraphs would never find their way into my own work. First of all, in almost every case whatever painting or poem you’re quoting is by someone far more well known and recognized than you are. One of the ‘greats,’ who have literary weight and history. It’s a scary thing, inviting that kind of comparison. I’m left wondering, “What could I possibly say better than this person?” I want to duck away from connecting what I do to anything bigger than myself — but, I’ve already talked about how that might not be possible. Or at least, it won’t make for very good poetry.

(I won’t go on about a poem you’re all going to have to read anyway, but I will say that it was easier to work ekphrastically when the work you’re referencing has personal meaning or context. It makes it easier to feel like you’re contributing something new, rather than just piggybacking off someone else’s art. That probably sounds very obvious, that you have to be inspired by something to write an ekphrastic poem, but I had always viewed it as an academic sort of thing, for some reason.)

One Reply to “What we have the right to (ekphrasis, epigraphs, artistic responsibility…)”

  1. Olivia,

    I think it’s useful how you distinguish between a ‘right’ and a ‘responsibility.’ I also felt, after hearing from David Herd, that I wanted to invite a shift in my writing, towards directly and explicitly acknowledging my cultural and political context, rather than implicitly, or simply by consequence of being an alive human being at this time in history. I like how Lytton broke it down for us to make it easier to understand — polis comes from the word for city; politics is about relationships and power and, when flipped on its head, can be about not only eliminating harsh imbalances of power, but using one’s power to do so.

    In some ways, all art is political, no matter how abstract or lonely it desires to be, because it was made by a person living in a society who was influenced by everything their society taught them from the moment they were born. In a way, I guess, this means that referencing ‘the greats’ is OK because they are probably a lot closer than we think.

    I don’t know that my poetry will often become explicitly political (in the sense that most people have of politics) and certainly not trying to teach the reader a lesson. However, I think that I will try to consider the context in which I am writing and connect my work, at least in my mind, to work that has come before, to culture, to circumstance, and hopefully, to the ways that power operates and exists between different people-groups in our society.

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