According to the Poetry Foundation, “an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.”
An ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art.
It can be a search for a deeper meaning within the work; or merely a personal reaction to the work. It can be either a profound or a personal subjective narrative. It can be your own reaction to the work that doesn’t dictate how anyone else should react to it.
You can dive deeply into the work, or go off at a seemingly random tangent.
Ekphrasis in broader terms is a rhetorical device in which a work of art in any medium is based on a separate work––also in any medium.
The term generally refers to a poem based on a painting or sculpture but, technically it could equally be a sculpture based on a poem, or even a poem about another poem, adding to, and developing on there ideas in the original.
However, today we are going to look at ekphrastic poetry in its narrowest sense, namely poetry based on works of visual art, and we are going to look particularly at how poets have delved deeply into works of art in order to find new meaning in the familiar.
A descriptive work of prose or poetry, may thus highlight through its rhetorical vividness what is happening, or what is shown in, say, any of the visual arts, and in doing so, may enhance the original art and so take on a life of its own through its description.
Take a look art this painting by the Dutch master, Peter Breughel.
You might walk past this painting in a gallery and think, “Nice landscape.”
You might also think that there’s something distinctly odd about it––if not unsettling.
Then you look at the title: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and you think, “Icarus? Wasn’t he that Ancient Greek guy that felt too close to the sun?”
What does Icarus have to do with a Dutch landscape? Well, he’s there. Take a closer look.
This is what the poet William Carlos Williams has to say about this painting (by the way the painting is from around 1550; the poem is from around 1950):
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
While we’re here, William Carlos Willams is not the only poet inspired by the Icarus painting. Here we have WH Auden.
Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Here are some more, for your enjoyment:
Anne Sexton on Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
Langston Hughes on ‘I am the Darker Brother,’ by Winold Reiss
They send me to eat in the Kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table.
– ‘I am the darker brother,’ Langston Hughes
‘The Great Wave: Hokusai’, by Donald Finkel
It is because the sea is blue,
Because Fuji is blue, because the bent blue
Men have white faces, like the snow
On Fuji, like the crest of the wave in the sky the color of their
It is because the air
Is full of writing, because the wave is still: that nothing
Will harm these frail strangers,
That high over Fuji in an earthcolored sky the fingers
Will not fall; and the blue men
Lean on the sea like snow, and the wave like a mountain leans
Against the sky.
Ekphrastic poetry could also take the form of a dialogue with a work of art. This is what Socrates says on the subject:
“You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.
The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive,
but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.
It is the same with written words; they seem to talk
to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything
about what they say, from a desire to be instructed,
they go on telling you just the same thing forever.”
In addition to writing about existing works of art, ekphrastic narratives have described works that now no longer exist, or perhaps never existed.
This is ‘The Shield of Hephaestus’ from the Iliad:
Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield; Rich various artifice emblazed the field; Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound; A silver chain suspends the massy round; Five ample plates the broad expanse compose, And godlike labours on the surface rose. There shone the image of the master-mind: There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d; The unwearied sun, the moon completely round; The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d; The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team; And great Orion’s more refulgent beam; To which, around the axle of the sky, The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye, Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain, Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main. Two cities radiant on the shield appear, The image one of peace, and one of war. Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight, And solemn dance, and hymeneal rite; Along the street the new-made brides are led, With torches flaming, to the nuptial bed: The youthful dancers in a circle bound To the soft flute, and cithern’s silver sound: Through the fair streets the matrons in a row Stand in their porches, and enjoy the show.
The most well-known Ekphrastic poem might be this one:
Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke 1875-1926.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
As documented in her journals, Sylvia Plath was a frequent museum patron.
Plath’s relations with paintings were particularly strong in early 1958, when she and her husband, Ted Hughes, were living in New England.
Attempting to get out of a “publishing drought,” Plath sought inspiration for her works by going to the library to pore over books of reproductions of paintings.
The majority of her painting focus was on contemporary artists, such as the twentieth-century Italian De Chirico, the French Symbolist Post-Impressionist Gauguin, the Naïve Post-Impressionist Rousseau, the Cubist Picasso and the Swiss Klee.
She discussed her encounters with paintings with a deep sense of serenity and joy, declaring “how lovely it will be to spend my mornings, after coffee, working on poems, an art poem… and a long poem about the spirit, luminous, making itself manifest in art.” Looking at various paintings in great detail, dissecting each of their forms, she eventually picked a few to focus on in her works, aiming “to have my art poems: one to three (Gauguin, Klee & Rousseau)—completed by the end of March.
Upon completion, she wrote about such poems very highly, going as far as stating “‘I feel these are the best poems I have ever done.’”
The Disquieting Muses
by Sylvia Plath
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.
Two Views of the Cadaver Room
The day she visited the dissecting room
They had four men laid out, black as burnt turkey,
Already half unstrung. A vinegary fume
Of the death vats clung to them;
The white-smocked boys started working.
The head of his cadaver had caved in,
And she could scarcely make out anything
In that rubble of skull plates and old leather.
A sallow piece of string held it together.
In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow.
He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom.
In Brueghel’s panorama of smoke and slaughter
Two people only are blind to the carrion army:
He, afloat in the sea of her blue satin
Skirts, sings in the direction
Of her bare shoulder, while she bends,
Finger a leaflet of music, over him,
Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
Of the death’s-head shadowing their song.
These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.
Yet desolation, stalled in paint, spares the little country
Foolish, delicate, in the lower right hand corner.
Staring at the Night
swirling silver sky
in the silent city
of a tender
to his soul
as I cannot
WRITING AN EKPHRASTIC POEM.
Here is a painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Could you write a poetic response to it.
What can you even say about it, let alone write a poem?
Talk about the colors, the shapes, the lines, the space, the patterns––and most of all, what objects drift up from the depths of your imagination when you look closely? Faces? Animals? Fish? Birds? Did Kandinsky mean to put them there? We have no idea.
What kind of poem should you write?
Maybe an Acrostic poem on Kandinsky’s name (now you see why I didn’t choose a Dali or a Miro).
You are always rising in my night sky.
In purely practical terms, what do we write about when we write about art?
Let’s take this picture as an example. It’s on Blackboard for you, along with about 25 others, as source for you ekphrastic poem.
1: Immediate response: what attracts you to the image? the subject? the colors? the period? the facial expression?
2: Deeper response: Who is she? Who is she looking at? Is this a self-portrait? For a formal portrait the sitter seems very relaxed and natural. What is the period? Which country did she and/or the artist live in? What is her background? What are her interests? What is she thinking about? How long did the painting take?
3: Deepest response: She is a pretty, intelligent and engaging young woman in the painting. This could have been painted yesterday, but she died over a hundred years ago. Who did she marry? How many children did she have? How did she die? Where did she live? Did she have pets? What did she like to eat? Is this a kind of immortality? She will always be young, pretty, and alive in the painting. What was her name? Was she really happy? What did she really want?