This week I thought I’d try my hand at ekphrastic poetry or poetry inspired by looking at a piece of art. I’ve never done this type of poetry before so I went on an internet search to help me get a handle on what ekphrastic poetry writing was inspired by and how to do it. This is what I found.
On the readpoetry.com website, I found example poems that drew their inspiration from four very famous paintings. You can read the poems, here. I have always had a fascination with Van Gogh as well as a few other Dutch masters and this site helped me to understand (somewhat) an ekphrastic poem.
The article inspired me to consider which famous paintings I might consider writing about. My choices included Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring (1665), and The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1654), both housed in the museum the Mauritshuis in the dutch city of Den Haag. And, both of which I’ve seen in person! The fact I saw these masterpieces in person is inspiring in itself.
However, It doesn’t have to be a famous painting to inspire a poem. The other reason I became interested in learning about ekphrastic poetry was that my youngest son is an artist. He is making a nice living selling his art and recently just rented a dedicated studio space in the Twin Cities. His space is larger by four fold and his apartment has become more spacious too! Since learning about this poetic form I’ve wondered about writing a poem inspired by one of his pieces. But, choosing one of his paintings to write about will be harder for me than choosing one of the Dutch masters.
Ekphrastic poetry dates back 2000 years, to the age of Homer and the story of the Iliad which includes a detailed description of Achilles shield. The word ekphrastic comes from the Greek language and an expression for description. (Craven, 2018, What is Ekphrastic Poetry?) The Poetry Foundation website defines Ekphrastic as a vivid description of a piece of art.
Despite the examples and definition, i still don’t know where to begin with this type of poem. My internet search continued. When I searched for guidelines or rules for writing an ekphrastic poem, I found this:
There’s no established form for ekphrastic poetry. Any poem about art, whether rhymed or not, metered or free verse, may be considered ekphrastic. (paraphrased from Craven, 2018). Therefore, you’ll find a wide variation in this type of poetry.
I found several websites with articles that gave more substance of how to go about writing a poem inspired by a piece of art. These include:
Let’s Write an Ekphrastic Poem (2017). This piece even includes a printable page suitable for use with students as well as pre-writing steps the writer can take to prepare for writing their ekphrastic poem.
Read, Write and Think (2007) offers many suggestions on how to approach ekphrastic poetry. In fact, there are so many suggestions that the handout might be overwhelming to a student (even an adult student of poetry, such as myself). It might work well to know the different approaches but only offer a few to students at a time. Or, you could have students come up with their own approach if you really want some creative outcomes!
One of the best resources I found, however, was on the website penandthepad. This article by Jan Archer in 2017 formulates an ekphrastic poetry lesson for the high school student. It is logical and would be an awesome aid for the teacher wanting to explore this time of poetry. The article suggest the following:
- Find your influence or piece of poetry that inspires. Ekphrastic poetry doesn’t have to focus on a painting but traditionally it does. Just feel free to use a sculpture or piece of pottery or photograph if they inspire you rather than a painting.
- Word Gathering. Okay, the article calls it something else, but when I worked with students this summer on sibling poems and color poems, we used our senses to gather words. This is much the same. Gather words and phrases about how the artwork makes you feel and allows you to imagine. Include memories and impressions, but try not to be analytical. The article warns against! (This will be hard for me.)
- Organize your Poem. Is it narrative? Lyrical? See how your thoughts fit together.
- Revise aloud. I always suggest this to my students, however, need to remember to do it myself. This will help you know if your poem “sounds” right. Note where you naturally pause. Put it into stanzas if you have not already. While your poem could be free verse or even a shape poem, it could also easily be made of quatrains or couplets.
Finally, Poetry.org offers a lengthy but detailed article called Notes on Ekphrasis by Alfred Corn, 2008. The article offers many classical examples of ekphrasis before getting to the more modern usage. He also describes what might be disadvantages of using various forms of visual art, such as the very famous paintings that are well known the world over. This source is only for the very serious reader and poet. It is extremely detailed but makes some good points and offers many examples one can investigate on their own, given enough interest.
So, will I try this now? You bet. I am going to try writing an ekphrastic poem on a piece of my son’s art. My work will be guided by what I’ve read, including the above steps and the perspectives offered on the Read.Write.Think handout. I don’t expect any greatness but do expect a challenge and I’m always game for one of those!
We are Earth.
The Earth embodies us.
One and the same.
Filled with carbon and the tiniest of flowers –
goodness and beauty.
What we do to ourselves,
We do to the Earth.
Let our minds encompass this,
as climate change threatens
Let her needs grow inside us humans,
covering our bodies with
but letting those
tiny flowers grow.
Once we allow Earth in
Our heads and skies will clear,
the future for all brightens.
© Draft, Carol Labuzzetta, 2021
Our host is Heidi at My Juicy Little Universe. Please visit her page for some more inspiration, and links to great poetry. Thanks for hosting, Heidi!
Ben’s website can be found here. Thanks for your interest! I used the first prompt (perspective) on the Read. Write, Think. reference to write about the scene or subject being depicted in the artwork.