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Obama’s Inauguration Poem: Ekphrasis, Evoking pictures, swaying emotions, preparing expositions

Speaking of Auden and images, this, again, from 

Although there are plenty of examples of ekphrasis in classical literature, the earliest extant instructions on how to compose one and what its functions are appear in the Hellenistic composition handbooks known as progymnasmata (here is an example, by Aphthonius). These handbooks were designed to train young people in public speaking, and they taught that an ekphrasis was not meant to be composed for its own sake, but it should rather be a part of a longer oration. In this context, the ekphrasis served to evoke a vivid picture in the mind of the audience so as to sway its members’ emotions and prepare them for the subsequent analytical and/or narrative exposition of the issue at hand. An ekphrasis could be composed in any style; it could be used as an introduction (proemium), substituted in the place of a narrative, or inserted as a pointed digression. When inscribed around an image, such as an icon, the ekphrasis functioned to provide commentary and/or guide the viewer’s interpretation of the patron’s intent. Occasionally—and this is especially true for the late antique and Byzantine period—an entire oration could be comprised of an ekphrasis, which functioned allegorically to illustrate either vice or virtue, creation or destruction, wisdom or folly, temperance or intemperance—but always with a rhetorical goal, embedded in a specific historical context.

One relatively recent example of ekphrasis is W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The poem’s description of the plowman in Brueghel’sLandscape with the Fall of Icarus provides an interpretation of the poem and places the image in the context of Auden’s visit to the Brussels Museum and the other works of the “old masters” kept there. William Carlos Williams puts the image to a much different use in his poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” however, focusing only on an interpretation of the painting without any contextualization.

While these examples suggest that in practice ekphrasis is not limited to one specific use, contemporary attitudes toward the term have grown out of a definition of it that emphasizes literary (poetic) representation—with all the ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions the notion entails. Thus ekphrasis has been variously theorized as mimesis, as art criticism, as an intermediary between the visual and the verbal, as appropriation of the foreign and the “other,” as a vehicle of pleasure and of the politics of pleasure, and as an object of semiotic or Freudian analysis. Recently, however, there has been a return to a fuller appreciation of the rhetorical goals and functions of ekphrasis and to its re-integration into the rhetorical classroom.

I wonder what image, in what context,  poet Elizabeth Alexander will paint for us with her words on January 20. What emotions she’ll choose to sway to prepare us for the narrative of Barrack Obama’s presidency.  I wonder too, how he’ll use this concept in his speech to prepare Americans for his message of unity.

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