Ekphrasis and endearments

Two falls ago the Endearments made a trip to Durham, NC, for the SAMLA conference, where I read as part of a panel on ekphrastic work chaired by the excellent Chelsea Rathburn. I talked about visual strategies for composition and presentation of poems, and about some submissions venues for that sort of work. But a more basic question floats to the front of the queue: Can a word be considered a work of art, a subject for ekphrasis?

A recent call for one-word poems, from REAEDR at New Lights Press, has me thinking about this again. It is here and worth having a look at: newlightspress.com/reaedr/

In a sense each of the Endearments is in fact an ekphrastic on a particular word—one that, because of its cultural context and the patterns of its use, signifies more and differently than some other kinds of words. Maybe a term of endearment is a work of commonly owned art—like a ballad, just shorter. And, possibly, more directed—that is, its medium being speech or the written word, its audience appears when it is sent to someone through the air, in sound waves, or via the page. Dearest. Bumble bee. Turtle. Little Cupid-arrows of direct address.

Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest this. And one could argue that the intentionally created one-word poem is more work-of-art than the one-word (or few-words) poem arising out of folk tradition. (The classic example from Aram Saroyan is certainly, famously, more costly. And there are class implications, very different ones, around both the value of art and the value of regional speech.)

But the delight is the same, I think. The delight in first finding a term of endearment that is perfect for a particular someone may extend to give that term life as an endearment proper—not just nickname but legitimate word. Wordwork. Artwork?

Saying yes to the endearment as art may seem more natural for people with synesthesia. When I anagram an endearment, I’m seeing the colors of each letter rearrange in relation to one another: it’s a lengthening, an extending, of the color-field of the word. That’s along with, of course, the sounds of the letters, and not to mention the field of cultural implications that come with their collective meaning. The term has more than enough texture, color, material for ekphrasis. And even when I don’t pay a lot of attention to the colors, each poem made from a term of endearment is a reflection and an extension of the word from which it begins—and with which it ends.