According to the Poetry Foundation, “an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.”
More generally, an ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art.
Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, enable the reader to find new meaning in what is perhaps an old familiar work.
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.
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.”
Ekphrastic narratives have described works of art that now no longer exist, or perhaps never existed.
A good example is the description of Hephaestus’s Shield of Achilles in the Iliad.
The most well-known Ekphrastic poem might be this one:
Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
It is not uncommon for writers to have transformative experiences with works of art. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was greatly influenced by visual art, including the paintings of the French artist Paul Cezanne, whose work, he believed, helped his writing. Rilke captures the transformative experience of viewing a work of art in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” In the poem, the speaker’s observations about an ancient sculpture spark reflections about existence. The poem ends with a statement of epiphany: “You must change your life.”
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.
Of course, not all reactions to works of art are so life altering. Paintings like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Landscape with Lake and Boatman could inspire poems
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Landscape with Lake and Boatman resonated with Romantic critics and poets, who often wrote about about beautiful scenes. The dramatic coloring of a quiet vista at sunset appealed to the critics of Corot’s time.
One critic, Théophile Gautier, enthusiastically described the painting in a poem:
See now how evening from the mount descends;
The shadow darker grows, and wider too;
The sky wears citrus tones on greenish hue;
Scarcely enough daylight remains to see Your name, Corot, so modestly inscribed.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams, 1883 – 1963
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
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 what I didn’t choose a Dali or a Miro).
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?