Ekphrastic Revisions: Verbal-Visual Networks in 20th Century Poetry by Women

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2012

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Abstract

This study considers contemporary ekphrastic poetry--poems to, for, and about visual art--particularly by female poets in the U.S. and theorizes a broader, more complex model of how the genre operates. I suggest a network model that attends to the multiple, simultaneous, and often dynamic relationships inherent in verbalizing the visual arts, where historically inter-aesthetic relations have been understood as an act of transgression and a desire to subsume a representational "other." Continuing to explore ekphrasis as a socially-inscribed encounter, as critics have since W.J.T Mitchell's field-defining essay "Ekphrasis and the Other," I recast the definition of ekphrasis as an elaborate network of relationships not only between poems, images, and readers, but also literary traditions, social contexts, individual artists, related works of art, textual conditions, and historical events. This expanded conception of networked ekphrasis allows for a nuanced understanding of the relationships between the arts, where speaking for another, as ekphrastic verse does for visual art, is more than an act of gendered contest, but can be a recovery against historical erasure, as with Elizabeth Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot," an act of empathetic collusion, as in the verse of Lisel Mueller, or the deliberate decentering of poetic authority, as in Elizabeth Bishop's "The Map" and "The Monument." Thus, I position the ekphrastic network as a site of social discourse where the spectrum of possible outcomes between poetry and images is broader and more complex than accounted for in previous theorizations.

"Ekphrastic Revisions" presents methodological opportunities for scholars interested in reshaping the genre's tradition. Where Part I introduces the tradition and genre of ekphrasis through methods of close readings alongside textual, biographical, and archival studies, Part II introduces a digital humanities project called "Revising Ekphrasis," which establishes best practices for using LDA topic modeling and social network analysis to read the ekphrastic genre at scale using a curated dataset of more than 4700 poems. In using tools available to the digital humanities, I take into consideration the range of possible questions that can be asked best through close and distant reading in order to revise the ekphrastic tradition.

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