Listen to This, Listen to That: Ekphrasis

by Dan Froid

Filed under: Blog |

Ekphrasis comes from the Greek, meaning “to speak out,” referring to poetry written in response to a work of art, typically painting. Poet Brandon Som suggests, in Air Schooner Episode 20, that ekphrastic poetry comes from the impulse to tell a piece of art about itself. Som also reads his poem “The Tribute Horse,” which was inspired by the painting “Finches and Bamboo.” On the other hand, as Scott Winter explains, “Perhaps wanting to speak to the art is really seeing the self somewhere in the art.” So ekphrasis might also refer to art that uses another piece as a starting point and refracts it somehow, developing it into a distinct work. I’m not talking about those books that, say, retell Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view, or pick up the story after the original novel ends—much less Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Charlene Spearen describes an abstracted portrait of a human head—a head with a “huge, charcoal eyes” and, at an angle, a puff of brown paint. From these abstract shapes, Spearen derives the image of a mother holding her child, prompting her to write a sorrowful epistolary poem to her sister. Such a poem refigures the original sources into a distinct piece. It’s not ekphrastic in the traditional sense, and yet it still hews closely to the traditional definition: the need to speak out about a work of art.

British musician and notable weirdo Kate Bush is well-known among her fans for the vast range of inspiration she finds for her music, from horror films to James Joyce’s Ulysses to the mathematical constant pi (really!). Among her best-known songs is “Wuthering Heights,” from her first album, which she released, obnoxiously, at the tender age of nineteen. You really do have to watch this video. If ekphrasis is the need to speak out about an art’s beauty, I don’t know what to call this, because Bush both sings and dances her way along the moors, offering the strangest and most captivating rendering of Emily Brontë’s novel that I’ve seen. And yet it’s not, or not only, some kind of compressed musical adaptation; it is ekphrastic in a broad sense, in a way similar to Spearen’s poem: Bush’s response to a work of art takes the form of an original work, the video as a whole. And in what piece of art might a young person better see themselves than Wuthering Heights, that classic of horrifying, uh, “romance”? The sort of obsessive, oppressive tormenting love that characterizes the most famous parts of Wuthering Heights becomes here an entrancing, impish routine that not only captures the essence of the bratty Cathy Earnshaw but results in an infectious piece that’s worth listening to (and watching) in its own right.