We have a couple of vocabulary-enrichment words today. First is ekphrasis. Dazzle your friends with your knowledge of rhetorical terms! And if they ask you to define it, the answer is “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.” The following poem by William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963) is an example, but not the only one we’ve had this month. How ever did we manage without using the technical term? The next word is kermess, which means “an outdoor fair or carnival in the Low Countries.” The work of art being ekphrasized here is, as you see in the first line of the poem, “Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess.” (There are alternate spellings for both Breughel and kermess, but I’m going to use the ones in the poem for the sake of clarity.)
This poem has stuck in my mind since I first read it decades ago, partly because Breughel is one of my favorite painters and partly because Williams, known for his free verse, makes memorable use of rhythm to convey the rolling and circular feeling of the painted dancers’ movements. His vocabulary – the butts, the shanks, the fiddles, the squeal and blare – captures the robust and earthy qualities associated with the Flemish painter.
I was going to link to a copy of the painting but there are a couple of Breughel works called either The Kermess or Peasant Dance. Besides, I discovered that some of the images are embedded in National Poetry Month discussions of this very poem. Well, just because the idea isn’t original doesn’t mean it’s not good.
In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess.
– William Carlos Williams