Artistic Adaptation: Ekphrasis in Pakistani Poetry in English

By Raza, Amra | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview
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Artistic Adaptation: Ekphrasis in Pakistani Poetry in English

Raza, Amra, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

This article examines the dynamics of ekphrastic adaptation in Pakistani poetry in English through exploring the methods and concerns of poets who transfer the visual representation of an object of art into the medium of poetry, using poems on tapestry, artifact, sculpture, music, and film. The study analyzes the way the poet engages in recreating the artist's visual or aural representation. Ekphrasis gives voice to the voiceless, and animates frozen forms, thus establishing that the best way to apprehend reality is through illusion.


Many poems by Pakistani poets writing in English show a direct indebtedness to other forms of artistic representation in different media such as artifacts, sculpture, tapestry, music, and film. This article examines the construction and dynamics of ekphrastic space in the light of Peter Barry's definition of an ekphrastic poem as "... one which speaks to or of an art object" (155). While ekphrasis is found in world poetry, the formal analysis in this article strives partly to shed light on the esthetics of the phenomenon and also highlight the specific Pakistani concerns and worldviews embodied in such poems. A detailed discussion of some Pakistani poems demonstrates how ekphrasis is used as a spatial construct to illustrate the inherent paradox of illusionistic space: that reality is best apprehended through illusion. In this process, the work of art draws attention to its own creation in general, and the creative process in particular. It is, thus, through the construction of ekphrastic space that the poet redefines reality.

James Heffeman traces the etymology of the definition of ekphrasis as:

   Composed from the Greek words ek (out) and phrazein (tell, declare,
   pronounce), ekphrasis originally meant "telling in full." It has
   variously been defined. First employed as a rhetorical term in the
   second century AD to denote simply a vivid description, it was then
   (in the third century) made to designate the description of visual
   art .... But it has not been confined to that meaning. In its first
   recorded appearance in English (1715), it was defined as "a plain
   declaration or interpretation of a thing" (cited OED), and in a
   recent handbook of rhetorical terms it is called simply "a
   self-contained description, often on a commonplace subject, which
   can be inserted at a fitting place in a discourse." (191)

Murray Krieger, one of the earliest theorists on ekphrasis, interprets the notion of ekphrasis as a separate genre, describing it as "word painting" (9) of visual objects, as well as of visual arts. In his appendix, he explicates that the ekphrastic process is characterized by symbolizing "the frozen stilled world of plastic relationships which must be superimposed upon literature's turning world to still it" (265-66).The stasis implied in this explanation is what has been effectively countered by James Heffeman. In specifying the interpretation of ekphrasis as "the verbal representation of visual representation" (3), he identifies it as a dynamic "literary mode that turns on the antagonism--the commonly gendered antagonism--between verbal and visual representation." (7). This definition builds upon W. J. T. Mitchell's notion that "Ekphrastic Poetry is the genre in which texts encounter their own semiotic' others,' those rival, alien modes of representation called the visual, graphic, plastic, or' spatial' arts" (n. pag.). The evolution of the definition indicates that ekphrasis demands a complex triangular perspective, generated by the collective vision of reader, poet, and artist.

The reader of an ekphrastic poem is called upon to engage in the poet's reconstruction of the artist's visual representation of reality at various levels. The process of constructing meaning from a verbal text is different than that used in creating a visual image. A verbal text dictates the optic direction, often in terms of linearity (for example from left to right in English), and the eye gathers meaning as it moves over the page.

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Artistic Adaptation: Ekphrasis in Pakistani Poetry in English


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