A couple weeks ago, actually it was January, 2002, my buddy Skillen sidled up to me and said, “Three things, OK? One: ekphrasis.”
I said, “Gesundheit.”
He said, “Not a sneeze.”
I said, “A skin disease?”
He said, “No, poetry.”
I said, “Ekphrasis—poetry?”
He said, “About art.”
I said, “Ah”—(sounding like him, suddenly)—“ ‘About suffering they were never wrong’”—
He said, “’The old masters,’ esatto.”
I said, “Gesundheit.”
He said, “Not a sneeze. Item two, OK? You teach it.”
I said, “Ekphrasis? I don’t…”
He said, “You will.”
I said, “When?”
He said, “November.”
I said, “Where?”
He said, “Orvieto.”
I said, “Gesundh… Orv…?”
He said, “Il mio posto favoriàte.”
I said, “But… Ma… Non parle… parlo…”
He said, “Non ti preoccupare. Insègnerai bene la poesìa. … In Inglese … OK?”
I said, “OK.”
So I got busy studying… ekphrasis.
(BTW, did you notice in my chat with Skillen there were actually only two things? With Skillen, there are always three things, even when there’s only two things.)
The next November I did disembark from a plane, a train, a funicular, and a bus—on a rainy night, luggaged and tiny and daunted beneath the duomo’s almost audible façade—
a façade—and an edifice—and a town—that would furnish 17 years, 34 seminars worth of looking, and of loading into language what light reveals of artists’ handiworks.
Skillen’s ekphrastic impulse was prescient. Since we launched that course in 2002, scores upon scores of books on the subject—on the encounter between word and image—have found their way into print and onto Amazon. (A recent title is Ekphrastia Gone Wild: Poems Inspired by Art. Is that subtitle a letdown, somehow?) Only did luminaries like John Hollander and WJT Mitchell beat us to the museum gallery punch.
A veritable charm of poets, an exaltation of marvelous poet-teachers, and a few prose-ists, have brought rigor, vigor and love to our writing workshop-on-the-tufa: among them Christine Perrin, Paul Mariani, Julia Kasdorf, Scott Cairns, Hannah Badia, Robert Clark, and twice last year Jeanne Walker—all writers of durable works AND of ekphrastic poetry, some of which can be seen on our anniversary website.
By my reckoning, 175 students have written 1400 poems that engage artworks both notable and humble, and respond to locales and vistas they know by heart and by passeggiata.
I’m almost done. The ekphrastic pairings on the stairs here and above us come from my poetry seminars over the years, in San Lodovico, San Paolo, and the Servi. The writers engage both very old and very new artworks, with varying formal techniques and ekphrastic strategies. When you look & read, you might remark those strategies—the difference, for instance, between a poem that thinks about the artist or her studio or her materials or her model—and perhaps one that attempts to construct a verbal equivalent to the image, through formatting, say, or syntax.
This summer I sifted through files and assemble a portfolio featuring one poem from each student in all of my ekphrasis classes; you can download this if you wish as a PDF. (I’ve printed up a copy; it’s somewhere nearby.)
And now, at last, a word about Matt and Sharona Doll.
My thus-far purple pen pales, peters out when I turn to acknowledge and thank Matteo for his continued commitment to this program we love, and to the ekphrastic endeavors that have been a part of it for so long. Poetry, painting, and their tangling in history are clearly highly favored in our curriculum and in our daily lives.
And in his. Here’s a guy who launches the day with poetry, connecting our dots to words wise and beautiful (saying “you KNOW this”)—reading Seamus Heaney or Thomas Merton or (“but first”) Mary Oliver.
Matt, we love you back, immensely. Sharona, Alesandro, Emmanuella, Karen, Becky, Emily (great friends who allow us a glimpse across the limits of ourselves), thank you for your commitment and your welcome. Add to them John, Susie, Bruce, and Z(ingarelli)—thank you, multo grazie for your work which has allowed us this opportunity for a lifetime.