EVERY so often, one comes upon a new word and is entirely delighted with it, and happily this is an experience that goes on after those heady childhood years when, having dabbled in the shallows of babbling and baby talk, one launches out into the deep of reading and being read to, and delicious new words come flooding in to refresh and enrich the meadows of one’s mind.
I can still remember the moment, as a very young child, when my mother read me The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, and I first heard the word “soporific”: “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific. I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit.”
I didn’t have to ask my mother what the new word meant because I could see from the next sentence that it meant “making you feel sleepy”, and I took great pleasure in using my new “grown-up” word and showing it off to my friends, casually remarking, “We sometimes have cocoa before bed time because it’s so soporific.”
I read an article once that said that the text of Flopsy Bunnies should be changed because children’s books should have a “graded vocabulary”, and “soporific” was too advanced a word for young children and might put them off reading! On the contrary, all children love strange and mysterious words, as Lewis Carroll found out long ago.
But just this year, at the age of 60, I had that same thrill of a new word, which I used to have at six. My new word was “ekphrastic”, from a Greek term meaning to speak out or describe. It’s a term that has come specifically to mean the use of words to describe a work of art, and is now used to denote a whole genre known as “ekphrastic poetry”, a long tradition running from Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles to W. H. Auden’s famous description, in “Musée Des Beaux Arts”, of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus.
I only discovered what ekphrastic poetry was when I was already in the middle of practising it. I have been commissioned by the American painter Bruce Herman to write a series of poems to go with a set of portraits that he is painting called “Ordinary Saints”. I had started to search for other poems about painting, to give me some idea of how this might be done, and stumbled happily upon a whole tradition of which I was unaware and a new word to go with it.
It’s a fascinating discipline, to sit down before a picture that has already “painted a thousand words”, to draw from it, and give back to it, a few of the many hours of close attention and insight which the artist has already lavished upon it; for in all good paintings there is excess, an over plus, a quality of “moreness”, which no single viewing can ever exhaust. This I discovered in the first poem in my sequence, about a portrait of the artist’s father, and wrote:
He meets us here, at home in his own skin,
Which holds more colours than the eye can trace,
More substance, more humanity and grace
Than paint on wood can possibly contain,
All in the clarity of his kind face.