Festival Blog: Helen Ivory on Writing the Visual

16 Mar

With Friday’s Poetry Breakfast turning into a fast moving multi-media event, as Facebook and Tweeters know, it seemed a good idea to extend the chat from this morning with one of the panellists, Helen Ivory. A poet and trained artist, Helen wrote this to accompany her appearance at StAnza and it dovetails perfectly with this morning’s discussions. It comes complete with one of Helen’s poems. Helen will be reading on Saturday 17th at 11.30am.

I began to write poetry at art school in Norwich, with George Szirtes  – also a trained artist – as my tutor.  I found I could more tangibly create images with words, and learnt to use metaphor more subtly through reading and writing poetry. I left my visual work behind – it’s more practical to make poems than artwork – you need less space and fewer materials.

My visual practice was concerned with the theatrical – I toyed with the idea of designing for theatre, but I was quite protective of the little sculptural environments I was making, and didn’t like the idea of having them scaled up for actors to act in.   I found that if I wrote poems, I could fulfill my megalomaniac urges to create the scenery, the lights, the actors and the drama.  I think of my poems as puppet theatres, and for the longest time, felt I was a visual artist who wrote poems.  Last year, fifteen years after I left art school, I began to develop my visual practice into something that might be described as a ‘voice’.  I could only have done this after having spent eighteen years pursuing my ‘voice’ through poetry.    Now I create word and image pieces, which to me are like my poems – they speak the same language, though the medium is different.  The poem happens in the dialogue between word and image. I am unable to write from my own sculptures, because for me, the poems already exist.  I do have an active interest in writing from other peoples’ artwork though.

‘Ekphrasis’ has come to mean the interpretation of one creative medium by another: a story from a photograph, a film of a book, a poem based on a painting et cetera et cetera.  It is centuries old, and one of the often most famous cited examples of ekphrasis comes from Homer’s Illiad where the description of Achilles’ shield is woven in to the narrative.  Another example is Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn.

In ancient Greece, teachers of rhetoric taught Ekphrasis, which literally means to ‘talk out of’ – to ‘explain’.  The way to score high marks in your Rhetoric exams was to bring the experience of an object so vividly to life through words, that the reader would feel they had experienced it themselves. Sometimes the objects were wholly imaginary, so the gift of the student to conjure something completely from air – such as Achilles’ shield – would have earned them very high marks indeed.

By Keats’ time, the writer was as present in the poem as the object he was engaging with, which represents one of the major changes in the way ekphrasis has developed.  Contemporary ekphrastic poetry is also no longer wedded to the notion of elaborate description and direct translation, but instead tries to make something new – to interpret and engage with subjects, to make images speak or to perhaps meditate on the moment of viewing.

Ekphrasis has undergone various interpretations through the centuries that questioned the nature of words, and the nature of images and the wealth and weakness of both mediums. For example, a series of Advice to Painters poems appeared from poets such as Andrew Marvell, who questioned the ability of painters – who were considered mere artisans – to be able to do anything terribly sophisticated with their medium. The contemporary painter Howard Hodgkin talks of the ‘tyranny of words’, and how once words have been attached to a painting, the painting doesn’t exist in its own right, which is why he is suspicious of even giving his works titles.   This is, I suppose the worst possible fear – that words either replace or cancel out the original artwork.

One of the best known contemporary extended pieces of ekphrasis is Pascale Petit’s What the Water Gave me: Poems after Frida Kahlo. Petit is perhaps unusual because she trained as an artist and has experience of what it’s like to handle materials. She has said in interview: “I still feel as if I’m making sculptures with words. I am aware of the shapes of the images in my poems, with colours, and the sensory and physical presence of the poem.” She was drawn to Kahlo through a shared love of animals, nature, clothes and colour, and also her “ability to turn pain into paint.”  She said that writing this collection was ‘like being in the studio again.”

There must be some kind of connection between poet and artwork in order for the poem to really sing.  Ekphrasis is no longer just about how eloquent or clever the writer can be.  When I was given the run of an exhibition called Family Matters recently for a commission – I was magnetically drawn to a sculpture called House of Thorns by Alice Maher. http://www.alicemaher.com/house-of-thorns—1995.html

It felt like it was already under my skin, as if I myself had made the sculpture.   It taps into my fascination with fairy tale and nursery rhyme, and to the recent poems I’ve been writing about my childhood and my parents’ house. This poem really did make itself.

The House of Thorns

It takes no more than a word

for a flame to stir in its womb

for smoke to rise and push at the walls

like a trapped and injured beast.

There is no chimney, no window,

no gasps of air, so the fire that’s grown

too big for the hearth

will die before it eats up the room.

Here is a bed for the wolf,

here is a chair burst at the seams

and here’s the little pot

that will cook and cook and cook.


It’s hard to imagine a path from this house

when you can’t imagine a door.

The roof is braced against all four winds,

you’re swaddled inside a coat of thorns.

There are stories about spring mornings,

about dew-soaked grass,

the signature of your footsteps;

you, the only child on earth.

The house is blind to romance;

makes you pin down your tongue;

rocks you till you fall asleep

hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye.


When the seeds are planted

and the roses are grown

mature enough for a harvest of thorns

and all the effort of building a home

tattoos neat scratches

on your parents’ hands,

now, think of a house.

Think of another house

a house of your own,

cut from the cloth of your very own skin.

The thought rises up

like a singing clock;

its bird constructed

of feathers and springs.

2 Responses to “Festival Blog: Helen Ivory on Writing the Visual”

  1. duncangmaclaurin March 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    This seems apposite, not least because my sister, Julia, lives just outside St. Andrews: http://gists.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/dream/


  1. Helen Ivory on writing ‘Waiting for Bluebeard’ | peony moon - May 21, 2013

    […] Helen on writing the visual for the StAnza blog.       […]

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