Ekphrasis and the Modern Lyric





Ekphrasis and the Modern Lyric


The term ekphrasis, which is also written as ekphrasis, is the graphical description of a visual work of art, using other forms of art. It is a Greek definition of any piece of a work of art. Ekphrasis also includes the description of people, experiences, events, besides artistic pieces. In the Greek culture, the true meaning if the term ekphrasis is to refer to an object, mostly inanimate, by name. Therefore, it is synonymous to describing an object or work of art, in the same way, it is represented, using another work of art. It is considered a rhetoric device where a medium in art attempts to relate to another artistic expression. An elaborate description often provides the viewer, reader, or listener with a vivid explanation and interpretation of what is happening in the art. The main advantage of using this rhetoric device is the fact that it reinforces the original art, and helps one understand the themes and motifs that were being expressed by the artists. Examples of ekphrasis in art may be a painting about a sculpture. For example, the sculpture of The Dying Gaul may be represented by a painting. Through interpretation of the painting, the viewer will be able to understand the essence of the sculpture, as well as help them understand concepts such as the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic ideologies. Another example of ekphrasis would be a song or poem done about the Mona Lisa painting, which would contextualize the piece of work through deep descriptions and interpretations through the words of the song or poems. An example of the earliest forms of this rhetoric device is Homer’s Illiad, which was a vivid description of the Achilles’ shield (Francis 517).

Spoken word, which is a form of literary art, is considered different from visual arts in some ways. However, various scholars have attempted to identify the major differences between the visual and spoken art, which has been futile. Personalities such as James Heffernan developed a theory on ekphrasis, which largely dwelled on the various arguments that emphasize the need to expound on the issues related to the differences between the linguistics and contents of poetry in the contemporary world and visual arts (Heffernan 312). Evidently, it is impossible to infer from a single argument without comparing and contrasting various ekphrastic artistic expressions such as lyrics and poems from different artists. Some of the works that have been considered as a great forum for the discussion include works of Claudia Rankine, Lynn Emmanuel, and Mark Doty. In a bid to explore the concept further, it is important that these works use the rhetoric device properly. Modern poetry appears to have failed miserably in the use of ekphrasis as an artistic device, which is an important element in expressive art. For many years, there have been various conflicted views about the major differences between pictorial art and visual art. Exploring the works of Claudia Rankine, Kynn Emmanuel, and Mark Doty will be instrumental in determining whether the poets have indeed understood the concept of ekphrasis and properly applied this device in their artistic works.


Claudia Rankine, a Jamaican poet, and professor, is renowned for her great and deep poems. One of her works, Citizen: An American Lyric. This is a poem, which is book-length that addresses the issues of race and the human imagination. The poetry has been deemed as criticism of the modern society and the unjust incidents that have affected people of the black race. This poem is a clear application of ekphrasis as it is a detailed description an explanation of various events in life, supported by visual images. The images are intended to help the reader understand the major themes of the poems in the most vivid manner. In the 2007 article, Introduction: Eight Ways of Looking at Ekphrasis, authors Bartsch and Elsner assert that the use of images, when embedded in text, is becoming more common among scholars and other literary and artistic pieces of works, such that it is no longer considered a show-off talent (Bartsch & Elsner III). They claim that ekphrasis, which was less used about a century ago, is instrumental in helping the viewer understand the concepts being discussed in any literary pieces. According to this article, ekphrasis provides the reader with a new level of understanding and conceptualization of phenomenon, which also helps one understand the power of literature and what it can do. It no longer becomes an issue of glossing over texts and images, but about internalizing images in relation to the texts accompanying it. In the same light, it is evident the poem in Rankine’s book experiments with various ways of applying ekphrasis as a rhetoric device. The poems are classified into different chapters, which expound of various incidents and stories that have negatively affected the African American Women within the American society.

The first chapter is a lyric, which can be described as a severe metaphor, which seeks to explain to the reader the intensity of the difference between the whites and the blacks in the society. The description can be classified as ekphrasis because it largely helps the viewer or reader envision or imagine the situation or object being described. Similarly, when Rankie describes her feelings in the first chapter of her lyric, the reader is able to connect with her and understand how she and her friends felt when they encountered various episodes of microaggression in their lives. For example, she describes the bleak times as cloudy and gray days, which make the sky, look approachable and low. Essentially, the gray color has been used metaphorically to signify hope and patience, because gray is a color between white and black. The most obvious inference is that the blacks had for long hoped for equality in the society by ending the intense racial discrimination.

In her second chapter, Rankine introduces the reader to Hennessy Youngman through a discussion on the Youtube episode done by Jayson Musson. Evidently, youtube is an aspect of the technological advancement associated with modernization. The episode is about art criticism. It also addresses modern art concepts that expose and explore contemporary issues within the society. The discussion in the clip, as described by Rankine, is an excellent portrayal of the use of this rhetoric device. McCullough describes her book, A Sense of Regard, as one, which collects various voices and opinions from poets and scholars to explore deeper the issues of race and poetry. It is clear that Rankine subscribes to McCullough’s line of thought based on the nature of her poem in her book. As explained before, ekphrasis seeks to explain a work of art using another work of art. Visual art does not only include paintings and sculptures. With the emergence of technology in the contemporary society, visual art has embraced films ideas as an intense form of art. Therefore, when Rankine expounds on the issues addressed in the YouTube video, which are related to the theme of her poem, she applies ekphrasis appropriately. This is because the reader is able to understand the intention of the poem lyric as well as understand the poet’s point of view. The reader is also able to visualize the exact situation, therefore adopting the poet’s perspective on life. This section of the poem is a solid illustration of the application of this literary rhetoric device in contemporary art.

In the same chapter, she sympathizes with world famous tennis player, Serena Williams, for the racial attacks she endured in the year 2001 when she engaged in the Indian Wells tennis competition. She also described the sour encounter in the tennis court when Serena verbally attacked the linesman while hurling profanities at him (Rankine 29). Besides the racial insensitivity Serena faces, the poet highlights the perpetual need for African Americans in the United States to overwork and put in more effort in their endeavors. Serena Williams is portrayed as an angry black woman by the American Society. These messages draw the reader back to the Youtube discussion in the same chapter, which is instrumental in explaining the need for artist such as poets and musicians to address issues greatly affecting the contemporary society such as racial discrimination, political strife, global warming, among others. The Serena Williams story is a great example of how the artist discusses issues pertaining African Americans, as advised in the Youtube video. The rest of the chapters further explore the same issues, in addition to misogyny, sexism, among other issues. The main art used by the author to advance her lyric poems are photographs and images that carry various messages related to the contemporary society.

In her book, Lyric Shame: The ‘Lyric’ Subject:  Contemporary American Poetry, the author seeks to explore the controversies that have been associated with contemporary lyric poets by having too much emotional connection and expressivity in their poems, yet lyric poetry requires a high level of disengagement from the poet (White 16). From her poems, Rankine uses ekphrasis to portray to the reader her raw feelings about the incidents and events as narrated in her poems. The use of this rhetoric device channels more of her emotional energy into her work, which is visible from her narration. Lyric poetry requires the poet to take on an onlooker’s perspective, while at the same time, portraying the messages in the most explicit ways, such that the reader can understand easily. The author claims that poetry no longer deserves the much praise it gets, largely because it lacks the lyric aspect to it. Tom illustrate this claim, one can consider the interview in the article, “Claudia Rankine” by Lauren Berlant in Bomb Magazine, where Rankine explains the essence of the picture of the Jim Crow Street in Georgia (Bombmagazine.org). This is an ekphrastic expression largely related to the racism issues addressed in her lyric. If the poet had not personally detached from the photograph and failed to use the rhetoric device, then her lyric would be deemed obsolete according to White. Lyrics should not be relativized to the narrator or a fictional writer or speaker like in novels. Instead, they should have themes or subject matters that are about the real world, and not the fictional world (Culler 163). In the same way, Rankine demonstrates the true essence of lyrics as she addresses various important issues in the real world. Additionally, the examples she uses in her poem to discuss her themes are non-fictional and real.

From the discussion and arguments presented, it is evident that Claudia Rankine, in her book-length poem, understands and appropriately uses ekphrasis in her lyric to engage the reader more on the issues discussed. She is an example of a true lyric poet, who is aware of poetic devices and how to intertwine artistic elements with her prose, which give it more allure. She widely uses images in her lyric to tell her story. Her images are accompanied by a description of a social concept in the contemporary world, which rolled over from the former years, such as racism. This use of images in poetry has been strongly applauded by author Sara Lundquist in her book, Reverence, and Resistance in which she describes with great pride the work of a musical composer, John Gruen. The artist aims to remember the New York from the 1950s and the 1960s, where he uses text and images to demonstrate how traditional art could be fused with modern art by comparing the two. Despite her not mentioning the concept of ekphrasis, Lundquist implies that using the rhetoric device is indeed crucial as it helps the viewer understand the meanings of poems from a deeper perspective. Therefore, Rankine’s poems are proof that poets are able to provide readers with critical interpretations of their texts, using ekphrasis, which largely bridges the gap between modern poetry and the traditional visual art representation.

Mark Doty is another example of a lyric poet, who is renowned for his famous poems. One of his most recognized work is My Alexandria, a series of poems. These works address various issues such as civilization and the cradle of humankind, HIV/AIDS, the homosexuals, and the issues they face in the society. The first chapter of the book explores the city of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the oldest cities in the world. Interestingly, it is named after the founder, Alexander the Great, unlike other cities named after a god. The cities represent the beginning of civilization, which has gradually resulted in modernization, as seen in the world today. Doty, based on his personal vision of life, creates an intangible city, which entails the daily human encounters. His main aim is to connect the reader with Alexandria, in a manner in which they can view the city in relation to their lives. The description he provides in his poem can be compared to making an intangible concept tangible. It arouses a certain level of mystery for the reader, in that, they are unable to access the ancient city of Alexandria, but are now able to infuse its basic foundations and concepts in their daily lives. His last poem in the first part of the book, Chanteuse is one of the best illustrations of ekphrasis used in the lyric. In the poem, the author tells the reader of about a drag queen singing in Boston to a warm Christmas. A warm Christmas is unheard of in the United States, which indicates that this comparison is a mere expression of hyperbole. Interestingly, the poet successfully combines two literary devices, the rhetoric, and hyperbole to engage the reader actively in a manner that they comprehend the themes being discussed in the poem.

The use of ekphrasis in this section of the poems can be explained by the author’s effort to compare a drag queen, singing, which is a form of art, to a Christmas. He describes the art of singing in his poem, which is an ekphrastic tendency, using art to describe another work of art. Additionally, he uses a drag queen as a character, who in the real world, is a  homosexual to prove that even these people who have been sidelined and marginalized by the modern society are talented. However, when he compares the singing to a warm Christmas in Boston, he implies heavily that the experience is unusual, largely because homosexuals in the society lead secret lives because of the societal pressures. The fact that the first part of the poem uses cities as the background or backdrop is a strong indication that the issues discussed relate to the modern setting. Cities are a representation of modernization and urbanization, which are associated with various issues such as varied sexual orientation, diseases, among others. Doty articulates his poems skillfully to the extent that the reader no longer views the city from a physical lens, but internalizes the issues being discussed from a social and personal context. Cities are a form of art, due to the innovations, the buildings, the different cultures that converge in the same physical space. Therefore, Doty’s use of the city of Alexandria to create a different vision for the reader in terms of contemporary social issues is a perfect demonstration of the application of ekphrasis in modern lyric poetry.

In his book, Professing Poetry: Seamus Heaney’s Poetics, author Cavanagh asserts that poetry critic Heaney claims in one his critics that poetry should be able to help the reader connect with and relate to the modern world. However, he finds that most poets fail to include this element in their lyrics (Cavanaugh 32). From the argument, this artistic element can only be achieved by applying the rhetoric device to the poem. Ekphrasis is important in modern poetry, especially because more often than not, ancient works of art are used in relation to the contemporary world. However, this does not mean that only ancient art is used when describing modern art. The author observes that Heaney was largely disappointed by the fact that many modern poets are unable to project proper descriptions to the readers to the extent that they are unable to make sense of the modern society and understand the deeper messages.

Culler in his article, The Language of the Lyric maintains that lyrics should not take on a personal perspective, especially from the poet. Instead, the poet should be the reader’s bridge between one form of art to another. He should also take on an onlooker’s perspective, which is an objective ground to offer opinions, which may sway the reader. In the second and the third sections of the lyric, Doty’s poems have a very strong personal feel. The major issues discussed in these sections are HIV/AIDS and the homosexuals, whom society as neglected because most of them are infected with the virus. Various poetry critics have insisted on the importance of having modern poetry address serious issues plaguing the society today. Therefore, Doty appears to be in line with these expectations and requirements as evidenced by issues such as homosexuality and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. These poetic sections are discussed based on what seems to be Doty’s personal home garden, with the background of a pastoral daylight. There is also an auction tent in the background. Doty asserts that in the modern society, the AIDS victims are severely stigmatized by people. The stigmatization comes from the fact that the disease is mainly acquired through irresponsible sexual behavior. Therefore, people who have acquired the virus are perceived as immoral and are sanctioned by the society by being banished to a life of solitude and marginalization.

The backdrop of a pastoral daylight is symbolic of hope and a blissful future for homosexuals and people living with the disease. Moreover, the development of the poem using the poet’s personal garden and the various backdrops are the application of ekphrasis. There is a great element of art in gardening, especially when one considers elements such as landscape, and the environment, which has been artistically described in the lyric. Therefore, once again in the second and third sections of the lyric, the poet achieves the correct application of ekphrasis in his poems, to address modern issues. It is safe to assert that Mark Doty’s lyric use if ekphrasis reconciles the conflict that exist between the modern art and traditional art representation. This phenomenon is important as it helps the reader better the problems the homosexuals and those living with the virus face. Additionally, it helps them understand the cradle of humankind being in Egypt, as the description of the city of Alexandria touches on various aspects of their daily lives. This concept is achieved by the poet’s ability to use ekphrasis to make an intangible object, the city of Alexandria, a tangible object, with which they can relate the experiences in their lives. This should provide hope to lyric and poetic critics as there are still artists who actively use ekphrasis in their publications, contrary to Heffernan’s observation that there are scarcely any poets using this rhetoric device in their work. However, Heffernan is quick to add that this does not mean that no artists are exploring the representation of visual art.

From the ancient days of Plato, who focused on vision as a tool to capture art, various scholars have challenged the notion that language is not sufficient to describe artistic visions captured by the human eye. The Renaissance Neo-Platonism views greatly influenced artists at the time to consider moving further from the practice of using senses to describe artistic work. This move was because such practices allowed an unusual access to the human mind, which could comprehend an intelligible reality (Krieger 437). The concept being discussed in the book challenges the use of ekphrasis, which is a phenomenon that was brought to light by Plato in Ancient Greece. The fact that the author challenges the opposition to the use of ekphrasis reveals that this literary device is indeed important for use in modern poetry and other forms of literature related to art. Interestingly, various modern poets may subscribe to this school of thought. One of them is Lynn Emmanuel, a poet renowned for her book, The Dig; And, Hotel Fiesta: Two Volumes of Poetry, which are a combination of different poems telling the reader different stories. In the prolog of the book, she posits that the use of prose is very tedious and boring, which is likely to make the reader and the poet as well lose interest in the artistic piece. Although her work incorporates various cinematographic effects, she asserts that movies and films are probably worse when it comes to the use of description in poetry. Evidently, her work is scarcely based on any artistic comparisons. Instead, it heavily relies on the power of descriptive language to narrate her story to the reader. Admittedly, her work addresses various issues, which, as poet critics claim, should address issues affecting the contemporary society. For instance, she describes a scene where the father sexually molests the girl when the grandmother is away (Emmanuel 108). Her descriptions are euphemistic, an indication of the severity and perverted nature of the atrocity. She describes his private parts as the dark part, where he places her hands on, and begins calling her name in pleasure. Issues of child sexual molestation have become rampant in the society, and as a modern poet, Lynn is required to raise awareness about such problems.

The use of descriptive language has an ekphrastic element, although it does not fully accomplish the desired effect as in other modern poems. In the book, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, the author uses the picture theory to help the reader understand the depth of a work of art when described extensively using words. The author begins the book with a short story about an incident in an art exhibition, where an observer is pleasantly amused by the words used to describe a certain painting. The observer is likely surprised because of the preciseness of the words, and the feelings they invoke in him about the painting. The author aims to demonstrate to the reader the immense capacity literary art has when used in the description of visually represented art. The author indirectly refers to ekphrasis in the book, which is largely praised for its effectiveness in providing an easy and understandable interpretation of artistic pieces. Shockingly, Lynn, one of the renowned modern poets appears to partly the idea of using ekphrasis as a literary tool. As discussed earlier, she largely depends on literary description to give the reader a vivid experience of the environment on which she builds her stories. The poems would gain more appeal had the author applied more of the rhetoric device in her poems. These poems are strikingly different from the other lyrics that have been discussed, which employed the rhetoric device. The poet should be applauded for addressing problems affecting the modern society, as required. Her poems address issues such as rape, sexual molestation of children, domestic violence, and rape, among others. Despite the poems having various cinematographic illustrations and explanations, the sparse use of ekphrasis is indeed notable. The poems, unlike the other lyrics, lack a great expression of the application of ekphrasis in contemporary art. Therefore, the epitomic conflict that exists between the visual representation of art and literary art prevails in the book.


The use of rhetoric devices such as ekphrasis in poetry is indeed imperative to both the poet and the reader. Modern poetry demands that poets employ this device extensively in their works, to provide the reader with broader and deeper perspectives about the themes being discussed. Additionally, modern poetry requires that poets address contentious issues in the contemporary society. In her lyrics, Rankine uses various significant photographs and videos to talk about issues such as racism, domestic violence, and the marginalization of women in the society. These photographs, which are a work of art, have been artistically used by the poet to help the reader relate to the problems she addresses. Mark Doty, in his lyric also used ekphrasis to introduce to the reader issues such as homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, and the stigmatization of the people affected in the society. The two lyrics by Rankine and Doty are great examples of the successful use of ekphrasis in modern poetry, to the satisfaction of various poetic critics. However, Lynn Emmanuel, a poet renowned for her work, The Dig; And, Hotel Fiesta: Two Volumes of Poetry does not apply the rhetoric appropriately. She mostly relies on the description to address various themes. She should, however, be applauded for addressing issues in the society like other contemporary poets. Her failure in ekphrasis in the poems does not write off her work. However, it deprives the reader of a deeper perspective on the subject matter of the poems, as opposed to a poem that employs the rhetoric in its presentation.


Works Cited:

Bartsch, Shadi, & Elsner, Jaś. “Eight Ways of Looking at an Ekphrasis.” Classical Philology 102.1 (2007): i-vi. Jstor. Print.

Bomb.” BOMB Magazine – Claudia Rankine by Lauren Berlant. N.d. Web. 17 December 2015.

Cavanaugh, Michael. “Professing Poetry: Seamus Heaney’s Poetics.” Washington: Catholic Univ. of America, 2009: 74-108. Jstor. Print.

Culler, Jonathan. “The Language of the Lyric”. Thinking Verse IV.I (2014): 160-176. Print.

Doty, Mark. My Alexandria: Poems. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois, 1993. Print

Emanuel, Lynn, and Lynn Emanuel. The Dig; And, Hotel Fiesta: Two Volumes of Poetry. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1995. Print.

Francis, James A. “Metal Maidens, Achilles’ Shield, and Pandora: The Beginnings of “Ekphrasis.” The American Journal of Philology 130.1 (Spring 2009): 1-23. Jstor. Print.

Heffernan, James A.W. “Ekphrasis and Representation.” New Literary History 22.2, Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre (Spring, 1991): 297-316. Jstor. Print.

Kreiger, Murray, and Joan Krieger. Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1992. Print.

Lundquist, Sara. “Reverence and Resistance: Barbara Guest, Ekphrasis, and the Female Gaze.” Contemporary Literature 38.2 (1997): 260–286. Jstor. Print.

McCullough, Laura & Collins, Martha. “A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race.” University of Georgia Press, 2015: 155-61. Jstor. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. London, UK; Penguin, 2015. Print.

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