Ekphrastic Poetry.

Juan Miro: Constellation.

Ekphrastic Poetry.

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.

old-illustration-of-achilles-shield-as-described-in-the-iliad-created-JR06K0.jpgA 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

Sosibious-vase-UberAura.jpgThou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
apollo torso

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.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Landscape with Lake and Boatman

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

his field

the whole pageantry

of the year was

awake tingling


the edge of the sea


with itself

sweating in the sun

that melted

the wings’ wax


off the coast

there was

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning.


Sylvia Plath.

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 3.34.30 PM.png

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.

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Two Views of the Cadaver Room
Sylvia Plath

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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 3.35.16 PM.png

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

Honor Moorman


he too 

once stood 

just here 

head tilted 

eyes licking 

the orangey 

crescent moon 

exploding stars 

flaming cypress 

swirling silver sky

his imagination 


in the silent city 

beneath quaking 

black mountains 

secret recesses 

of a tender 

growing night

Van Gogh 


to his soul 

with furious 


as I cannot 

with this 


of words 

he will 





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?
Something simple.
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?

Here are some suggestions on writing poetry (or any other type of writing).

Find a quiet time and place where you won’t be disturbed. Some writers like to write very early in the morning.
Prepare whatever sustenance you need: coffee, tea, soda, beer, chocolate.
Arrange your comp book and writing implements.
Take a few moments. Pray maybe, or meditate. Light a candle. Summon the spirit/ muse/ duende. Think of this is a sacred task. Prepare to listen to the voice inside.
Don’t pick up your pen until the urge is unbearable.
Let the ideas come to you. Write fragments. Try not to focus on a finished product, such as a novel or short story or poem.
Don’t worry about grammar or rules. Just write. If you get stuck on a word, then circle the word with the pen until the next word comes to you.
When you are finished, take a moment to give thanks to whatever higher power might have given you inspiration.
Treat your comp book as if it is a sacred book. Don’t drop it. Don’t sit on it. Don’t destroy it. Maybe you could wrap it in something special when it’s not in use, in the way that some people wrap tarot decks in purple cloths.