Writing for Art – Stephen Cheeke



Edan Longley’s No More Poems about Paintings.  Cheeke refers to Edna Longley’s essay from 1992 ‘No More Poems about Paintings” based on the Kinglsey Amis quote “Nobody wants any more poems about …paintings” 1955. I cannot get access to this essay anywhere though there are many references to it.

Lessing in the 18th Century ascribes painting to the spacial realm and poetry to the temporal.

Orpheus and Euridice – Cheeke examines in depth Robert Brownings ekphrastic poem based on Frederick Leighton’s 1856 painting ‘Orpheus and Euridice’ (see cover of the book above). Brownings poem was called ‘Euridice to Orpheus’ and was part of a collection ‘Dramatis Personae’ publised in 1864. Cheeke suggests that Euridice’s plea to Orpheus that he should turn and look at her is a metaphor for the demands of visual art to be viewed. Her refers to the gendering of the ‘male gaze’ viewing the female subject (artwork).

“The art gazer wants the painting to acknowledge her presence (‘look at me’) and here is the special case of a poet in the presence of a work of art, experiencing an envy or rivalry because her wants his poem to be read with the same intense act of attention”

Interestingly Robert Brownings wife died in 1861 (Leighton designed her tomb) so the Orpheus Euridice story has particular significance to him. Orpheus journeyed to the underworld to rescue his lover Euridice but lost her on the final steps into the world by looking back at her. This was forbidden by Hades. The personal pertinence of this should not be overlooked as my experience of ekphrastic poetry has been of finding personal significance within a work and of the work in some way drawing out emotional responses.

Temporal v Spacial

“It is one of the paradoxes of painting …that the immortality or timelessness of the image is a kind of death in life” (pp15)

Ekphrasis as taboo practice

Cheeke Quotes Grant F. Scott:

“Everywhere in ekphrastic studies we encounter he language of subterfuge, of conspiracy, there is something taboo about moving across media, even as there is something profoundly liberating. When we become ekphrastics we begin to act our what is forbidden and incestuous, ; we traverse borders with a strange hush, as if being pursued by a brigade of aesthetic police.”

Grant F. Scott ‘The Rhetoric of Dilation: Ekphrasis and Ideology’ Word and Image, 7:4, 301-10, (309).


Creeke talks about ‘writing for art’ as a kind of failure, a ‘doomed experiment’. The poet desperately wanting the kudos of the painter, envying the ‘gaze’ of the art viewer. He talks about painting and poetry as rivals and relates it to a sibling relationship – quarrelsome sisters. writing and art know as the sister arts.

Ownership: I see writing and visual arts as more congruent. The idea of which is better, more worthy is akin to a search for authenticity. In the same way a book collector seeks a first edition or a historian an original source, the original material of a creative work is regarded as having special significance. If we follow this train of thought then the natural world might be considered as the most sublime material. This doesn’t seem to bear out however as paintings about common objects or experiences does not generally mean these objects/experiences are more highly regarded. We do however enjoy a sense of joy, power or achievement in knowing the source of something, as if we were in some way more connected to the artwork or even the creator.

This search for and status of the authentic original is reflected in the modern insistence of intellectual property rights. It seems to me that so many artists seek to establish a singularity to their work as if it was achieved through spontaneous combustion and not from a culture that rests on the summit of a mountain of derivations or from an ocean of collective consciousness.

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