The Ekphrastic Poetry of James R. Eads

20 minutes to read
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Roeline Machiels
04/01/2021

Ekphrastic poetry can be described as poetry which is linked with an art piece and written in reaction to an illustration. The art and text generally work together in order to generate new meaning. James R. Eads' works are a good example of ekphrastic poetry. An analyis of two of his works will be done to see if new meanings are indeed created when his illustrations and poetry are looked at simultaneoulsy.

“Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks,” said Simonides of Ceos, a Greek lyric poet (Barkan, 2012). This quote is an adequate explanation of the essence of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a literary term which originates from the ancient Greek words ek, meaning “out, ex-”, and phrasis, meaning “explain” (Corn, 2008). In ancient Greece, the term was used rhetorically in order to analyse a given description in prose or poetry (Barkan, 2012). Today, the term ekphrasis is usually defined as a piece of writing that describes a visual work of art. Here, the word ‘describing’ can be interpreted in a broader sense than just describing the visual aspects of a work of art. (Hess, 2013) Specifically, an ekphrasis is written as a poem or prose about a real visual artwork or a fictional artwork (Barkan, 2012).

Ekphrastic poetry as multilayered work

Ekphrastic poetry is poetry that is written as a ‘description of’ or ‘reaction’ to an art piece. Most ekphrastic poetry is written by poets who have drawn inspiration from another artist's work. However, there are some artists who also write ekphrastic poems about their own art (Chesoni, 2009). One of the most well known examples of an poet-artist is William Blake, who wrote the ekphrastic poem The Tyger, inspired by his own painting  (Barkan, 2012).

Ekphrastic artworks consist of multiple works that coexist and interact with each other. In the field of hermaneutics, the field of theory and methodology of interpretation, ekphrastic artworks are very fascinating objects, because they consist of multiple layers. One of the interesting characteristics is the interaction of text and image, especially since the ekphrastic poetry is defined as a descriptive text. This makes it all the more intriguing to research how both elements construct meaning by the use of hermeneutical interpretation. The assumption is that since ekphrastic poetry is descriptive, one would expect that it does not add an whole new layer of meaning to the artwork.

Ekphrastic poetry can be described as poetry which is linked with an art piece and written in reaction to an illustration. The art and text generally work together in order to generate new meaning. 

To see whether or not this assumtipn is justified, I will analyse two ekphrastic artworks created by contemporary poet-artist James R. Eads, a Los Angeles based illustrator and painter. Eads primarily works in acrylic and on a Wacom tablet to create high quality screenprints and giclee prints that imitate traditional painting and printmaking.  By the use of hermeneutic methods, I will examine if the ekphrastic poetry, written by James R. Eads, adds new layers of meaning to the visual images. The works that will be analysed are Goodbye Helios and Old Friends. These works form a set within his grand collection A Thousand Years of Life, a collection of digital illustrations that are inspired by the universe (Eads, 2016). Both works of the set consist of a visual image, an illustration, and a poem.

Conducting this research, I will first discuss the methodological framework used to analyse both the visual and textual elements. Here I will also explain the hermeneutical approaches that I will use to interpret the works. The ekphrastic poetry will be analysed separately, starting with the visuals of each piece, and then the textual interpretation. After both elements are analysed, I will compare the interpretations of the elements in order to test what meaning is added by the ekphrastic poetry. In the end, I will also look at the interpretation of the set as a whole.

Ekphrastic poetry and hermeneutics

Hermeneutic research is the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (Merriam-Webster, 2016). Within the hermeneutic field, there are several different approaches of looking at and analysing literature. This research focuses on a method developed by New Criticism.

New Criticism came up in the first half of the 20th century. According to this approach, texts are autonomous and closed. By this, the New Criticism outlook implies that a text can be understood by only analysing what is present in the work itself. So, the New Critics argue that readers must interpret the text, and nothing but the text. , Elements such as the authors biography are not necessary in order to understand the context and therefore the meaning of the text. (Vigil, 2016) The relevance of the author and background . of the work is not completely disregarded, yet the New Critics find these kinds of information to have have little bearing in the overall analysis. Works should ideally be evaluated merely on the text itself (PoetryFoundation, 2016).

New Criticism believes in affective fallacy and intentional fallacy. The affective fallacy states that one should not analyse the effect a text may have on a reader, because then one would alter the text with their own personal perspective. When one gives in to the emotional reactions, one is less able to analyse a text objectively. Intentional fallacy states that it is impossible to determine an author's reasons for writing a text or using certain words, purely based on their works. The New Critics anyway believed that , even if one was able to determine authorial intentions, it would not affect the text, because the work carries its own meaning (PoetryFoundation, 2016).

The approach of New Criticism focuses on several literary devices, such as tension, irony, paradox and metaphors. These elements can be analysed using the method of close reading.

The intentional fallacy can be linked to the theory of Roland Barthes. In The Death of The Author (1967), he claims the author must be dead in order to be able to interpret the text. By this, he means that one must forget about the intention of the author and focus on the text itself. “To give a text and Author – and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it – is to impose a limit on that text”, says Bartes (1967). He also states , that even if we were to research what the author intended, we cannot ever precisely detect it.

The approach of New Criticism focuses on several literary devices, such as tension, irony, paradox and metaphors. These elements can be analysed using the method of close reading. According to the New Critics, close reading  is a way to engage with a text and pay close attention to interaction between form and meaning (PoetryFoundation, 2016). It requires taking a text apart and looking at the theme, setting, plot and structure (Vigil, 2016).

Close reading of poetry

In the text The Heresy of Paraphrase (1947), Brooks states that poetry must be described and interpreted in terms of structure. “The structure meant is certainly not ‘form’ in the conventional sense in which we think of form as a kind of envelope which 'contains' the 'content' (Brooks, 1947,p. 194). Instead Brooks (1947) defines the structure as a structure of meanings, evaluations and interpretations; “and the principle of unity which informs it seems to be one of the balancing and harmonizing connotations, attitudes and meanings” (p. 195). According to the principle of unity, the form and text cannot be separated from each other. Therefore one must treat the work as an “achieved harmony”.

The unity of a poem is achieved by a dramatic process, since it represents an equilibrium of forces. The conclusion of a poem is the analysis and interpretation of the tensions of metaphors, symbols and propositions. The relation of each item to the whole context is crucial. “The expression of an attitude, apart from the occasion which generates it and the situation which it encompasses, is meaningless” (Brooks, 1947,p. 207).

The unity of a poem is achieved by a dramatic process, since it represents an equilibrium of forces.

Brooks states that a poem consists of a unified experience. Since the experience of the poem lies within its structure, the form and content, one cannot paraphrase the poem without altering the meaning. Brook claims “it is highly important that we know what we are doing and that we see plainly that the paraphrase is not the real core of meaning which constitutes the essence of the poem” (1947, p. 197).

The heresy of paraphrase is one of the difficulties in New Criticism according to Brooks. When one is mislead by it, the relation of the poem to its ‘truth’ is distorted. Brooks (1947) states, “We raise the problem of belief in a vicious and crippling form, we split the poem between its ‘form’ and ‘content’”. .

She also states that the traditional terms that are used to deal with the structure are perhaps misleading because they imply that “a poem constitutes a statement”.

“The attempt to deal with a structure such as this may account for the frequent occurrence [...] of such terms as ‘ambiguity’, ‘paradox’, ‘complex of attitudes’ and [...] ‘irony’. [...] It is to be hoped in that case that we can eventually improve upon them. But adequate terms will certainly have to be terms which do justice to the special kind of structure which seems to emerge as the common structure of poems” (Brooks, 1947, p. 195).

Again, Brooks claims that the meaning must be derived from the work itself and not try to unravel the artist's ‘statement’. The work is an autonomous, closed, and unified experience. 

Close reading of words

According to De Saussure textual language is made up of signs, and these signs consist of two elements. On the one hand the sign consists of the signifier. This refers to the shape of the word, the sequence of graphemes. On the other hand there is the signified. This is the mental concept that we have with the word. The signified must not be confused with the referent, since this refers to the actual object outside of our minds (Chandler, 2016).

The two-sided model of the sign as explained by  De Saussure creates the foundation of the theory about denotation and connotation of Barthes. In Mythologies (1957), he explains the myth of the sign as a way of speech. This can be linked to the modern linguistic phenomenon ‘figure of speech’ (Ryan, 1998). Barthes, in a way, splits the signified into two new components. First, we have the denotation of the sign, which refers to the literal meaning of the word, the definition one finds in the dictionary. This can be linked to the general mental concept one has of the sign. Secondly, there is a connotation of a sign, this refers to the associations and emotional suggestions we have, more or less universally, connected to a sign. “A connotation for ‘white’ can be clean or pure, and a connotation for ‘snake’ can be evil" (Ryan, 1998). The connotative meaning coexists with the denotative meaning.

The ekphrastic poetry of James R. Eads

Though close reading is assumed to be used for interpreting textual works, Brooks (1947) also compares poetry with the visual object. Therefore, the digital illustrations of the ekphrastic works of James R. Eads will also be analysed with the use of close reading.

Goodbye Helios

Poem and illustration

Goodbye, Helios

"Careful, Helios" warned Night
"If you're foolish you'll use up all your light.
Make sure you rise when the time is right."
“Ha! Don’t be silly, Night.
Don't you know I am the light?
When I rise the Sky will ignite!"
“Yes, of course Helios you shine most bright
But even you have your limit of light.
I know what I know, I am right.
And if you burn your light too bright
I’ll be alone, and it will always be the night."

“That’s Ridiculous!” said Helios to Night.
Why do you always have to be so uptight?
I’m going to rise even brighter tonight
And then we’ll see who’s right!"

So the two embraced and said goodnight.
As they always did, even after a fight.
But this time Night held on extra tight.
Because Night is wise and always right.
And then, foolish Helios shined all his light.
And that day, dawn was brighter than bright
and that was the last time dawn followed night."

(Figure 1: Goodbye Helios, James R. Eads. 2015)

The first artwork of the set is Goodbye Helios’ which is presented in figure 1. In order to find out if the ekphrastic poetry brings new layers of meaning to the object, the print shall be read closely first.

Before linking the print to the ekphrastic poetry,  it shows two figures embracing each other. One figure is dark with a few bright spots and the other figure is colourful. One is able to state the figures are affectionate towards each other, considering the definition of embrace – “to hold someone in your arms as a way of expressing love or friendship” (Merriam-Webster, 2016). When looking at the embrace, the positions of the arms can indicate the initiator of the embrace. According to research in body language, the hugger, (the giver of the hug), usually places the arms on top (Wood, 2016). In this case the dark figure would be the hugger and the colourful figure the huggee (the receiver of the hug).

To understand the character of the embrace, another look at body language is needed. The print seems to present a platonic hug that one uses for friendships. This can be interpreted by looking at the position of the hands and arms. The hands and arms are located around less intimate regions, such as the side of the back, the upper back and the shoulders.

When allowing the role of association to come in, one figure seems to be representing the Night, which is indicated by the way the figure is illustrated, consisting of darkness, stars and the moon. Since the other figure represents something lighter this can be interpreted as a persona of the Day. The title of the work is Goodbye Helios. Helios is, according to the Greek mythology, the God of the Sun (The free Dictionary, 2016).

The poem and the illustration become one work of art, in which they illuminate each other. In this case the ekphrastic poetry creates a new medium through which the illustration is experienced: the narrative way.

From close reading, the figure that we know as the persona of the Night is embracing the persona of the God of the Sun. Also, it is interpreted that the Night and Helios have a platonic, friendly relationship with each other.

When close reading the poem, one is able to state that there are two figures talking to each other. In the poem, Helios speaks with Night, which gives the figures in the illustration a fixed identity which is not open for other interpretations after reading the ekphrastic poetry. At this point, we can certainly conclude that the illustration shows the personas Helios and Night in an embrace.

The poem is a narrative one as it tells a story about Helios and the use of his own light. The poem consists of an omniscient narrator as well. The poem starts with Night directly speaking to Helios, and Helios reacting to Night. The first part of the poem consist of the dialogue between the two figures and gives the spectator some background information about the scene. At the end of the poem, a narrator steps in to tell the rest of the story. This stanza is a descriptive text as it refers to the illustration with a lingual translation.

“... So the two embraced and said goodnight. ”

The poem describes the embrace between Night and Helios, which creates a direct link with the illustration. The poem and the illustration become one work of art, in which they illuminate each other. In this case the ekphrastic poetry creates a new medium through which the illustration is experienced: the narrative way. The ekphrastic poem starts with :

"Careful, Helios" warned Night
"If you're foolish you'll use up all your light.
Make sure you rise when the time is right."
“Ha! Don’t be silly, Night.
Don't you know I am the light?
When I rise the Sky will ignite!"
Yes, of course Helios you shine most bright
But even you have your limit of light.
I know what I know, I am right.
And if you burn your light too bright
I’ll be alone, and it will always be the night."
“That’s Ridiculous!” said Helios to Night.
Why do you always have to be so uptight?
I’m going to rise even brighter tonight
And then we’ll see who’s right!"

In this passage Night ‘warns’ Helios that he should be careful with his light. Helios has a limit to his light and Night says that if he is foolish he will use it all up. In the scenario mentioned, where Helios would be foolish and use up his light, Night says he would be alone and it will always be night. Helios disagrees with Night, calling him uptight and saying his statement is ridiculous. From this passage, one can interpret that the two personas are in disgreement about the current situation. In the last sentence, Helios says he is going to prove who is right “by shining even brighter tonight”.

The passage is followed by “So the two embraced and said goodnight. As they always did, even after a fight”, which indicates that the personas are having a fight. So the last passage does not indicate a discussion, but a fight between the two friends. Still they hug each other like they do every night, as said by the poem. Then it goes on:

But this time Night held on extra tight.
Because Night is wise and always right.
And then, foolish Helios shined all his light.
And that day, dawn was brighter than bright
and that was the last time dawn followed night."

This last passage states that Helios did not prove himself to be right, because he did shine up all his light. It was the last time dawn followed night, meaning that Night was right and is now alone. “But this time Night held on extra tight” seems like a different from the ordinary hugs they give each other every night. The ‘but’ and ‘extra’ indicate this fact.

“Because the Night is wise and always right” – This indicates that Night knew that Helios was going to be foolish and Night was going to be alone the next day. Night holding on extra tight could, in connotation, mean that he is saying goodbye to Helios, just as the title of the work indicates.

After close reading both the elements of the ekphrastic work, it can be stated that the ekphrastic poetry does add another layer of meaning to the illustration.

The ekphrastic poetry has a didactic feel to it. Helios is portrayed as foolish when he uses all his light, and then leaves the universe in complete darkness. He shines one last time “brighter than bright and that was the last time dawn followed night.” The poem seems a didactic narrative about balance and self-control of the character Helios – “Make sure you rise when the time is right”, “even you have your limit of light” and “if you burn your light too bright, I’ll be alone”. It is not just about the balance of Helios himself, but also about the balance of Night and Helios together, like yin and yang, the night and dawn.

When examining the meaning of the poem, it is not certain if the story of Helios and Night should be interpreted as a metaphor. Using connotation, for example, there is an indication of the balance between the dark and bright emotions of humans. Even though the didactic feel is present, the narrative is the most forthcoming aspect of the poem. The illustration mostly functions as a visualisation of the narrative. The illustration shows the spectators the visualisation of the personas of the story.

After close reading both the elements of the ekphrastic work,it can be stated that the ekphrastic poetry does add another layer of meaning to the illustration. The descriptive poem does indeed describe an embrace between the two figures Night and Helios, though it provides more insight in the narrative, giving a different meaning to the embrace.

Old Friends

Poem and illustration

Old Friends

you’ll know when it happens. 
It will feel like a hundred sunsets
hitting you all at once. 
It’s a difficult feeling to explain,
maybe you have felt it before.
It’s sort of like old friends meeting,
or the dawn breaking into the night
after a thousand years of darkness.

(figure 2: Old friends, James R. Eads. 2015)

The second piece of the set, as presented , is the artwork Old Friends (figure 2). The illustration shows again a dark figure with a few bright spots and a colourful figure. Considering the pieces are a set within the collection, one may look at them as a unity. Following this principle, one can state that these figures are the same figures as the ones in the print and the ekphrastic poetry of Goodbye, Helios.

 The two characters Night and Helios are again portrayed in an sort of embrace. This time, according to the studies of body language, the print shows that Helios is the hugger and Night is the receiver of the hug (Wood, 2016). Also, there upper bodies are not in touch with each other, unlike in the print Goodbye, Helios. In this print the characters are making eye-contact and Helios even has a visible smile. This indicates the personas are glad to see each other, and this is a happy sort of embrace. The illustration also shows a form of light colours between the two personas.

The title of the poem Old Friends indicates the personas Helios and Night meet again. Also it carries a positive emotion by using the word friends, as a friendly reunion. The poem and illustration seem to be a sequel to the artwork Goodbye Helios.

“... It’s sort of like old friends meeting,
Or the dawn breaking into the night
After a thousand years of darkness”

According to the narrative poem Goodbye Helios, dawn did not follow Night after Helios shone too bright. The poem Old Friends implicates that after a thousand years of darkness, dawn finally broke into the night, like old friends meeting again. Following the narrative, Night and Helios are reunited again after a thousand years of darkness. Since the artwork Old Friends acts like a sequel to Goodbye Helios, the artworks are not only ekphranstic artworks on their own, but they also have an intermedial relationship with each other. The artworks, illustration plus poems, illuminate each other and form a greater narrative together.

In contrast to the poem Goodbye Helios, Old Friends describes a feeling more than a story. The poems is not a literal lingual translation of the illustration. It contains only one literal descriptive sentence that explains the visuals of the illustration. The poem describes the dawn breaking into the night, which is illustrated in the print. The Night's head is already fading and the is a source of light between the embracing figures, that indicates this ‘breaking of dawn into the night’.

The two pieces Goodbye Helios and Old Friends can be reviewed apart, yet linked together they create a more profound narrative through ekphrastic poetry.

When examining the meaning of the poem, the illustration seems to be functioning merely as a metaphor. The ekphrastic poetry describes a certain feeling that feels like a hundred sunsets, old friends meeting and dawn breaking into the night after a thousand years of darkness. The latter is the metaphor, which is visualised in the illustration. The focus on the narrative shifts to the meaning of the metaphor. It is not about the story of Night and Helios anymore, but about what they represent. The artwork Old Friends is the answer to the question if Goodbye Helios could have been interpreted as a metaphor.

The poem Old Friends relates the illustration to something other than the story of Night and Helios. It introduces a positive feeling, the focus point of the described scene. The illustration and narrative about Night and Helios supply the metaphor for the two main emotions that make the essence of the story. On the one hand you have the Night, a dark feeling, and on the other hand Dawn, which illuminates this dark feeling and creates a bright emotion.

The bright feeling of the Dawn dominates James R. Eads' poem Old Friends. After what felt like a thousand years of darkness, something will feel like a hundred sunsets hitting you all at once. It is presented like an extraordinary feeling, as extraordinary as dawn breaking after a thousand years. This can be interpreted as an extraordinary connection or relationship with someone, like an old friend. With the suggestion of it feeling like meeting an old friend, James R. Eads keeps the exact relationship between the two subjects open for the interpretation of the spectator.

The two pieces Goodbye Helios and Old Friends can be reviewed apart, yet linked together they create a more profound narrative through ekphrastic poetry. Goodbye Helios is the foundation of the narrative, and Old Friends makes it an emotive experience. Since it is a set within the collection, James R. Eads seems to have meant this as one great scene.

Ekphrastic poetry as an additional meaning

When looking at the analysis of the close readings above, the ekphrastic poetry did bring another layer of meaning to the table with both prints. This resulted in a profound narrative as interpreted in this analysis. With the print Goodbye, Helios, the ekphrastic poetry tells the story behind the friendly embrace, uncovering that Helios is foolish. , According to Old Friends, Helios has disappeared for a thousand years, leaving Night alone. The ekphrastic poetry that belongs to the print Old Friends adds an emotive layer of meaning to the print. Not only do the two characters meet again, the illustration seems to represent the feeling of “old friends meeting, or the dawn breaking into the night after a thousand years of darkness.”

 

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