The Art of Ekphrastic Poetry
As a follow-on from my post in July where I introduced you to Erasure Poetry, I am excited to share another recently discovered genre called Ekphrastic Poetry with you this month.
Like erasure poetry, this genre is also a wonderful way to cross collaborate with another art form which provides a great deal of inspiration, ensuring your writing stays fresh and open to new possibilities.
First things first then…
What is Ekphrastic Poetry?
Ekphrastic poetry is defined by poets.org as a literary description that focuses on works of art, usually paintings, photographs or statues, which attempt to interpret, confront and speak to their subjects.
There are many famous examples to be found when looking for ekphrastic poetry to inspire you such as ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning which opens with the arresting lines: ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.’ Another well-known illustration is by John Keats entitled ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. My favourite lines – ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;’ A wonderful example of euphony where repetition of soft ‘s’ sounds and vowel sounds create a melodious tune for your ears.
More modern examples can be found in the work of Elizabeth Bishop as in her reflective poem ‘Large Bad Picture’ or Jorie Graham’s contemplative poem ‘At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body’.
This genre is one that many poets have taken and continue to take inspiration from. I have certainly found that writing from art takes my mind in directions I otherwise most likely wouldn’t have found myself going.
You’ve probably guessed what I’m going to say next… I encourage you to try out writing your own!
Top Tips for writing an ekphrastic poem…
1) Describe what you see and what you are drawn to. Then, using this description, allow yourself to explore the painting or sculpture beyond surface level – think about what it might be symbolic of. A painting of a waning crescent moon might become a poem about release and letting go.
2) If the painting or sculpture is of a person, write a monologue from their perspective. Try to write from an instinctive place and allow your first thoughts to flow freely onto the page, then use this monologue as a starting point for your poem. For instance, if your narrator talks about feeling trapped inside the painting this could provide a starting point for a poem where you explore an aspect of your own life that makes you feel trapped.
3) Think about your viewing experience and the experience of others viewing the painting or sculpture. If a person stops for only the briefest of seconds before moving on, what does their viewing experience make you think about in relation to the painting or sculpture?
4) Be specific – give things a name so that ‘the plant’ becomes ‘the bleeding heart’. This will create far more evocative imagery.
5) Be detailed with colour descriptions, ie: if a woman in the painting is wearing a red dress, what kind of red is it? Burgundy, persimmon, crimson? What kind of dress is she wearing? A ballgown, a sundress, a mini dress?
6) Think about the layout of your poem in relation to the sculpture or painting. For example, if the painting is of a vast, far reaching landscape, perhaps your poem might use long lines that stretch across the page to imitate the landscape.
7) Play with sound techniques such as assonance and alliteration and use literary devices such as similes and metaphors to create concrete, suggestive imagery that is redolent of the poem in front of you. ie: if the sea is depicted in the painting, what words might you use in your poem that are reminiscent of the sound of the sea?
8) Research – in order to give your ekphrastic poem even more depth, find out more about the artist and their intentions. Find out who the person in the painting is or who the sculpture is of. Find out where the painting is set and the time period it was painted in. All these little details can make you see the painting or sculpture in a whole new light.
Nearby museums and exhibitions…
1) Pallant House Gallery in Chichester – this is a wonderful art gallery to visit and they have plenty of stimulating exhibitions coming and going. One such exhibition entitled Urban Landscapes is due to run between Saturday 6th October 2018 – Sunday 10th February 2019. As found on the Pallant House website this exhibition allows you to ‘discover historic, modern and contemporary interpretations’ of the urban environment ‘with recurring themes of anxiety and isolation.’ Fantastic fodder for poetry. More information can be found at: pallant.org.uk.
2) Cass Sculpture Foundation in Goodwood – a fantastic place to visit with, as detailed on the Cass Sculpture website, twenty six acre grounds home to a constantly evolving display of sculptures. A visit here provides a wonderful opportunity to see how your approach to poetic form changes when working with 3D art. More information can be found at: sculpture.org.uk
In the Frame: Women's Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne Moore to Susan Wheeler edited by Jane Hedley, Nick Halpern and Willard Spiegelman. This thought provoking and insightful book contains sixteen essays from poets and critics about the subject of ekphrastic poetry. It specifically looks at the contribution that women poets have made to this diverse genre, citing work from poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Jo Salter and C. D. Wright. If you’re interested in learning more about ekphrastic poetry and the impact these, and other, innovative women poets have made to the genre this is a must read.
My own Ekphrastic Poem…
This poem is inspired by Romaine Brooks’ The White Bird.
A housefly crawls over her face, explores
the grey oil paint pasted on canvas.
Burnt umber barriers surround
her slender frame; a figure in dull ivory
vermillion feather pinned
to her brimmed hat.
Her head is bowed
like a mourning widow bloom, downturned
lips thin as a blade of black lilyturf, thumbed
onto sallow skin.
She shares her room with a white-plumed
zebra finch. Her orange beak peck-pecks at the bars
pecks at the bars, imagining a moment of freedom
as her stunted neb finds a gap in between.
The fly scut tles beyond the thi ck bl ac k fra m e
Until next month then!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and my poem!
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