a method for ekphrasis


Thetis at Hephaestos’ forge waiting to receive Achilles’ new weapons (Naples National Archeological Museum), public domain from wikimedia

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on ekphrastic poetry — that is, poems that are written in response to another work of art. The work ekphrasis comes from the Greek: ek meaning “out” and phrazein meaning “speak.” So, in ekphrastic poetry, the poem speaks out of (or for?) another work of art.

The oft-cited first example of ekphrastic poetry is Homer’s Shield of Achilles from The Iliad. Other frequently cited works are Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn and Auden’s Musee de Beaux Arts. There are many, many other famous and not-famous ekphrastic poems that are worth your time and attention — poetry and painting seem to belong together as Aristotle once pointed out — but I mention these because they appear to be the holy trinity of ekphrastic poems.

My reading has taken me through long, labyrinthine halls of art theory and literary theory and the intersection of the two. There is a mountain of material out there if theory is what you want. What I’ve been trying to find are craft essays on ekphrasis. So far, I’ve struck out. I’m beginning to think that the reason is: craft-shmaft — whatever makes for a good poem also makes for a good ekphrastic poem. So instead of focusing on ekphrastic theory or ekphrastic craft, I’ve moved toward focusing on process.

Here’s a process that has worked well for me. For the most part, I came to it intuitively but it’s also informed by “A Question of Attraction: Ekphrasis” by Madelyn Garner and Andrea L. Watson in Wingbeats, and by a workshop on ekphrastic art I took from Sally Ashton. If you’re interested in ekphrastic poetry, I hope it will be helpful to you, too.:

First, let some art choose you. That’s right, I said let the *art* choose *you* (or perhaps you’ve already been chosen by some art). Instead of setting out to write a poem about a particular work of art, I’ve followed inner nudges toward art that then began to speak to me. I stumbled upon this book* (where? No idea.) and then borrowed it through the semi-secret library nerd borrowing program. Twice. I remembered someone saying once that Bonnard had painted his wife over and over again, and that felt interesting to me — so I went to the library and checked out a book of Bonnard’s paintings. Also twice. Of course, going to a museum is also a perfectly valid option; and many, many museums have portions of their collections online — so there are many, easily accessible resources for ekphrasis at your disposal. One last tip: I’ve found that used bookstores are a really good place to get art books at affordable prices.

Page (or walk or click) through and listen. Next I page through the books of art and listen for any words that announce themselves for a given work of art, and I jot them down in my notebook. The risk here is that no words appear. If not, no worries. Just note the works of art that speak to you somehow, so you can return to them later.

Choose one piece of art, and freewrite about it. This is as simple as it sounds. Write whatever comes to mind and try to keep your inner critic from talking you out of anything (use duct tape if needed). I like to listen for words that arrive as I consider the work of art, but I also try to channel the physical attributes of the piece: colors, perspective, textures, etc. This is also a good time to write down the details of the work — title, artist, year, media, museum (if applicable).

Do some research about the work of art. Write what you learn in your notebook; keep a list of sources. For me it’s important to do this step *after* the freewrite — because it’s far too easy to let the art critic and your inner critic start collaborating against your artistic impulses. But I’ve also found that doing research about a work of art can deepen my understanding of it, and in fact, has often introduced interesting layers to what I’ve already intuited while freewriting.

Decide who or what your poem will speak for. Will your poem give voice the subject of the art, the artist herself, the bowl of fruit spilled out on the table in the lower left corner of the painting? Will your poem speak to the work of art directly? If yes, who is the observer/speaker? Will your poem be an attempt to interpret the work of art, to say what it means or communicates? Will your poem say what happened just before the moment captured in the painting, or will it say what happens next? John Hollander**, one of the many ekphrastic theorists, calls this determining your stance — what is the poet’s relationship with the work of art?

Whatever you do when you draft poems, do it. Draft away. Pull in elements from your freewrite and your research, as well as from the work of art itself. You may wish to let the visual aspects of the piece inform your formal choices (or you may wish to put off formal decisions until the next step). At any rate: Poet, do your thing.

(this is going to come as a shocker, but) Revise, revise, revise.  And here I’d like to say, don’t be afraid to let your poem depart from the work of art if that’s what it wants to do. The work of art is a starting point, and any ekphrastic poem worth it’s salt needs to go beyond the work of art itself — it needs to bring something new to the conversation between the work of art and the world. If your poem ends up being only distantly connected to the work of art, that’s okay.

And that’s my process. Again, I hope it’s helpful for you if you’re interested in writing ekphrastic poetry. I invite you to share any tips or methods you’ve used to write ekphrastic poems, as well as names (and links to, if possible) your favorite ekphrastic poems, in comments.

*I normally avoid linking Amazon, but couldn’t find a link to this anywhere else.


11 thoughts on “a method for ekphrasis

  1. Hi Molly,

    Interesting that you should write about ekphrastic poetry. Again I’m taking an online writing course, and wouldn’t you know, our instructor suggested a couple of weeks ago that we read some poetry William Carlos Williams wrote after viewing several Bruegel paintings (http://wcwbrueghelpoetry.blogspot.com/). Several of my classmates, including me, came away unhappy with Williams “stepping between” Bruegel and us. Others thought It was all very cool.

    Luckily our instructor suggested we try writing a poem about our view or feelings about Williams interaction with Bruegel. Ah, a way out. As I felt most betrayed by a Williams-induced separation from Bruegel’s painting “Icarus,” I chose that poem and piece of art to critique in another poem. Thought-provoking, eh?


  2. I love your advice, and I do lots of these things, too, when I teach ekphrasis or write ekphrastic poems! I love your let-the-art-choose-you aspect, and will incorporate this the next time I teach. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome! And here’s another way in: One of my first poetry teachers brought a bunch of art postcards to class and we all picked the one the “spoke” to us. Then we had to pass it to the person next to us! And so, as much as I’m for letting the art choose, I suppose there’s no wrong way into a poem.

  3. I usually shy away from ekphrasis– a term which I can’t even find in my dictionary app, btw, so yeah,no surprise you can’t find much about it– though this particular blog post is great. I love your method you have developed, and now I’m feeling much less shy about it. There are two paintings that have always stuck with me since I was very young for some reason (I’m thinking that a library visit probably had something to do with it), and though I did take art history in college (my 1st major– there have been a few, lol) these have remained my favorites. I’m thinking I need to do a little exphrasis here now. 🙂
    Oh, the paintings are, in case you are wondering, Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth and The Kiss by Klimt. Both are just haunting in my view.

    Great post, Molly!

  4. Love this post from top to bottom. Great tips, suggestions, and insights. Poet Lynne Knight, my all time favorite ekphrastic genius, has said she keeps a basket of art postcards and picks one out, starts writing. A wonderful exercise – there is always something to write about with art. Always.

  5. Pingback: tuesday’s poetry from prompt | naked

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