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Reviewed by:
  • Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts
  • Christopher Reed (bio)
Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts. By Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 274. Cloth $89.00.

Titles that sound straightforward can be misleading. Neither about poetry nor the visual arts writ large, this book concentrates on ekphrastic poems in English about Western fine-art painting and sculpture (and a few medieval tapestries). I don't mean this opening to be churlish. But when a book opens by invoking "'the pictorial turn' from a culture of words into a culture of images that began in the late nineteenth century with the advent of photography and then film, and has accelerated since the mid twentieth century with the invention of television and, now, digital media" to explain "the widespread presence of ekphrasis in twentieth-century poetry" (3), it seems odd to exclude without justification "the plethora of possibilities" concerning ekphrasis of photographs, films, or public monuments (27)—"(And this is to say nothing of ekphrases in other languages)" (11, parenthesis in original). It is also to say nothing of visual art created in relation to poetry.

Although Loizeaux presumes a conventional definition and Anglophone canon of ekphrasis, her project is intriguing. She sets out to challenge the dominance of W. J. T. Mitchell's "paragonal model" (15) of ekphrasis as a "dramatic confrontation of words and images" (13). Calling Mitchell's well-known essay "Ekphrasis and the Other" "the most fruitful and persuasive theorization of ekphrasis" (13), Loizeaux nevertheless finds it "less satisfying . . . when it comes to understanding, or even recognizing, such modest, and profound, feelings as companionship or friendship, the terms in which poets often describe their ekphrastic motives" (15). Quoting Gertrude Stein (on "familiarity" with art), Ntozake Shange (on art as a "friend") (15), [End Page 110] and Mary Ann Caws (on "community") (18), Loizeaux positions her study as an implicitly feminist alternative to Mitchell's paradigm, in which "every gesture of friendship looks like linguistic appropriation, every gesture of friendship like co-option, every expression of admiration a declaration of envy by the word for the unobtainable power of the image" (15). Loizeaux is no doubt correct that "paragonal" assumptions of competition and dominance continue to structure most discussions of ekphrasis, and her project of seeking different registers in which to discuss difference is compelling. It seems, however, that competitive modes are difficult to shake off. Although the book offers provocative and convincing readings of individual poets, the goal of displacing competition as a primary paradigm for understanding ekphrasis is only fitfully achieved.

Despite Loizeaux's commitment to a less competitive version of ekphrasis, in her first chapter, she seems to relish the contest between perceptions of the museum manifested in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and Paul Durcan, as well as in Durcan's aggressive attitude toward the visual arts. Two Irish poets writings roughly a half century apart, Yeats and Durcan are analyzed as responding to different moments in the histories of both Ireland and the museum as institution. Where Yeats's "The Municipal Gallery Re-visited" instructs readers to see the gallery as a microcosm of national history, Durcan's irreverent mediations on his own often autobiographical responses mock now old-fashioned ideals of national—or, really, any kind of collective—purpose. Loizeaux clearly prefers Durcan's "extended exercise in acting up in the museum" (49), titled Crazy about Women, although her engaging explication acknowledges that the younger poet was enabled by attitudes "confidently postcolonial in a way Yeats could not be" (48). She, nevertheless, is sensitive both to the way Yeats's poem registers the "the high personal cost" of "sacrilizing the images of his friends to raise them into history" (44) and to how Durcan's apparently personal responses are funded and promulgated by the collective "phenomenon of gallery-commissioned ekphrasis"—the National Gallery of Ireland is his publisher.

Loizeaux's attention to the dynamics of ekphrasis in the museum is extended through the second chapter, which takes up W. H. Auden's famous poem, "Musée des Beaux Arts" and the many poets who have rewritten it. Auden's poem, Loizeaux argues, offers an ethical model...