Ekphrasis and ethical self-reflexivity in contemporary Australian poetry

Ekphrasis and ethical self-reflexivity in contemporary Australian poetry
"First variation of You Yang landscape number 1" (detail) Fred Williams 1965. National Gallery of Victoria © Estate of Fred Williams

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Many poets have treated ekphrasis as an opportunity for reflection on their own artistic practice: they examine the capacities and limits of their own form by comparing it to another. This self-reflection involves ethical as well as aesthetic questions: poets reflect on how good and harm in their work are bound up with the specific resources and limits of a verbal medium – limits which come to light in new ways when they are compared to those associated with a visual one. One of the most celebrated examples of such interartistic ethical self-reflection is W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, with its meditation on the capacity of painting to depict suffering and its “human position”. This position is characterized, fundamentally, by proximity in combination with disregard: awareness and callousness, observation and inaction. What Auden’s poem offers is a verbal analogue of this combination – the poem shows how a painting’s specifically visual juxtaposition of proximity and disregard can manifest itself in written form.

While Auden’s own poem has already occasioned decades of critical discussion, what remains underexamined is the way in which its representation of implication or complicity takes place in the ekphrastic work of later writers with related moral anxieties, as many modern and contemporary poets share Auden’s preoccupation with the experience of being involved in, but not directly responsible for, moral and political wrongs. In Australia’s specific historical and ecological context, these anxieties take on specific dimensions, as explored by such poets and critics as Sarah Holland-Batt, Ellen Van Neerven, John Kinsella, Michael Brennan, Paul Hetherington, Cassandra Atherton and Lisa Gorton. Various theoretical models characterize this state of involvement, but the terms ‘implication’ and ‘complicity’ in the thought of Hannah Arendt, Alexis Shotwell and Michael Rothberg are especially illuminating.

The poets under discussion explore not only the experience of moral implication in itself, but also the forms of implication that are specific to the process of writing, and of writing poetry in particular. Here the ekphrastic mode proves to be a rich area for analysis, as ekphrasis puts under particular pressure the overlaps and distinctions between the verbal and the visual as potential sites for moral implication in artistic creation. Above all, ekphrasis dramatizes the act of looking, with all the forms of implication that can flow from – and be countered by – this. The state of moral implication in the Auden poem is grounded in the act of seeing: in witnessing suffering and turning away from it. In later ekphrastic writings, the act of witness occupies a similarly ambivalent position, hovering between moral repair and moral hazard. The act of looking mobilized in ekphrasis can constitute a morally salient attentiveness, but at the same time, certain modes of implication are predicated on witnessing and the opportunities it presents for knowing inaction. This paper reads Auden’s various Australian inheritors with this ambivalence in mind, ultimately showing the theoretical relevance of the ekphrastic mode to critical discussions of ethical self-reflexivity in modern and contemporary poetry.



Dr Bridget Vincent is a Lecturer in English at the Australian National University, and is currently undertaking an AIAS-COFUND II Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship at the Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies. Her first book, Moral Authority in Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill, was published by Oxford University Press in 2022. She writes on modern literature and ethics, and her specific research interests include: public apology in twentieth century writing; ekphrasis; the lyric essay; ecocriticism; and literary attention. She has published on modern poetry in the Modern Language Review, the Australian Humanities ReviewPhilosophy and Literature, Diogenes and the MLR Yearbook of English Studies. She was recently awarded a British Academy Rising Star grant for a project on writing and attention, which considered the role of literature in the age of digital distraction and misinformation. Before coming to the ANU, she taught literary criticism at the universities of Nottingham and Cambridge. 

Date & time

Thu 11 Aug 2022, 4.30–6pm


Online (via Zoom)


Dr Bridget Vincent, ANU


Monique Rooney


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