John Keats had a Grecian urn, the Beats had Charlie Parker’s horn, and Run DMC had their Adidas. All of these poets were using a time-tested approach to writing the kind of thing that people want to read. They were not caught up in the self-importance or preciousness that sometimes distracts the well-meaning poet. They were doing ekphrasis, or responding to art.
This technique allows a poet to get outside themselves, using ekphrasis as a vehicle to write something that transcends their own personal experience. By pointing to a piece of sculpture, a jazz album, or a pair of shell toes and beginning the discussion there a reader has context. Frequently this is missing in poetry. Often times a poet, when reading aloud has to do a lot of “banter” to try and give context for a poem. That stuff should be in the poem.
When a poem has no context outside the poet’s own head, when they haven’t crafted it considering the fact that others will be listening to it or reading it, one is left with an experience of someone telling you their dreams. Few people really want to hear about your dreams. Good friends and significant others might be, or might be willing to suffer through it. But there’s a reason psychiatrists can charge over a hundred dollars an hour to listen to this crap. Don’t subject people to this kind of thing unless you’re going to help them move, you’re sleeping with them, or you’re handing out Benjamins.
However people love stories. People love to hear how you tried to climb a mountain and failed. People love to hear how you talked your way into a gig you were not ready for and what you did to stay one step ahead of your boss. People love to hear how you convinced someone clearly out of your league to go home with you. People love to hear about how you got diarrhea in while on an all day Pablo Escobar themed bus tour of Medellin, Columbia. People love to hear you write about something they already love. That’s why fanfiction is so popular. People love to hear someone get up in front of people and say some cool shit. Ekphrasis is a way to do that.
One of the best examples of a book length work of ekphrasis is Natasha Tretheway’s Belloq’s Ophelia. Tretheway’s work imagines the life of a prostitute who was photographed by E.J. Bellocq in New Orleans during the early 1900s. The poems are full of brilliant images, syncopation, and frequently push at the edges of what’s expected of a sonnet. I was lucky enough to meet Tretheway in DC a few years ago. She had already won a Pulitzer Prize by that point but she wasn’t yet the Poet Laureate of the country. Here’s a photo of that meeting taken by Megan Hudgins.
And just to show I that I walk the walk, here is a link to a poem I wrote responding to The Walking Dead, it’s called “Almost the Last Man on Earth.”