The Poets’ Niche

By Mark Sconce



Ekphrastic is not a geologic age like the Triassic or the Jurassic. Rather, like this column, it is just another niche in the history of poetry.  And, like so many things we accept as established, ekphrasis was first conceived, defined and utilized by the ancient Greeks. Ekphrasis simply meant description, but today it implies a vivid or dramatic description of a work of art—a painting, a sculpture or some other objet d’art. In other words, art describing art. Describe it to a blind man with all the skill the poet can bring, including his feelings about the piece--his interpretation. The ekphrastic tradition begins with Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in the Illiad.


Shield-of-AchillesTwo cities radiant on the shield appear,

The image one of peace, and one of war.

Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight,

And solemn dance, and hymeneal rite;

Along the street the new-made brides are led,

With torches flaming, to the nuptial bed:

The youthful dancers in a circle bound

To the soft flute, and cithern’s silver sound:

Through the fair streets the matrons in a row

Stand in their porches, and enjoy the show.



Grecian-UrnAnd what could be more Grecian than a Grecian Urn?


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

  Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

  Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!

  When old age shall this generation waste,

    Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

  ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’--that is all

    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats (1795-1821)


Henry David Thoreau reminds us, “It is not what you look at but what you see.”


An eye-popping example would be X.J. Kennedy’s take on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.


Nude-Descending-StaircaseToe upon toe, a snowing flesh,

A gold of lemon, root and rind,

She sifts in sunlight down the stairs

With nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister

A constant thresh of thigh on thigh—

Her lips imprint the swinging air

That parts to let her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears

Her slow descent like a long cape

And pausing, on the final stair

Collects her motions into shape.


And finally, as William Butler Yeats asks, “O, body swayed to music/O, brightening glance/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”


Matisse’s Dance

Natalie Safir (1990)


Matisse-DancersA break in the circle dance of naked women,

dropped stitch between the hands

of the slender figure stretching too hard

to reach her joyful sisters.

Spirals of glee sail from the arms

of the tallest woman.  She pulls

the circle around with her fire.

What has she found that she doesn’t

keep losing, her torso

a green-burning torch?

Grass mounds curve ripely beneath

two others who dance beyond the blue.

Breasts swell and multiply and

rhythms rise to a gallop.

Hurry, frightened one and grab on--before

the stich is forever lost, before the dance

unravels and a black sun swirls from that space.


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