Ekphrasis, pronounced ˈek-frə-səs (accent on the first syllable), is the representation in language of a work of art—it acts as an organizing principle in poetry and fiction, making the connection between art, storytelling, and life. Ekphrasis functions as an interpretive key to a particular work.
Ekphrastic poetry consists of poems that are based on others form of art, most often paintings, but also including such art forms as sculpture, musical composition, etc. It is art inspired by art.
Derived from the ancient Greeks, Ekphrastic poetry began when students learned to write poetry by focusing on the architecture and art in museums or grand public places. The form has interested poets of the past and has made a comeback in recent years.
Ekphrasis usually includes, but is not limited to, the use of enargia. This term comes from classical rhetoric. It means to make an object appear lively before the reader’s eye. This usually happens through careful recreation of the visual artifact through verbal means, such as detailed description, use of sensory information, imagery, etc. In other words, ekphrasis normally attempts to visually reproduce the art object (i.e. painting) for the reader so the reader can experience the same effect or reaction as the poet. This is sometimes called “painterly” poetry.
Importantly, Ekphrastic poetry is more than mere textual description or verbal interpretation of visual art. Making an object (painting or other work of art) lively before the reader’s eye involves, in the best Ekphrastic poems, an emotional and perhaps even spiritual response to the work of art – achieved through written language.
The Victorian era was the last major era of literature-inspired visual artworks. Painters continued to draw influence from literature, but the influence tended to find expression in more abstract, nebulous ways, and a clear switch came into vogue—writers began to turn increasingly to the works of painters and sculptors. By the time of the Modernists, poets (especially in America) began to draw inspiration from Modernist artists. Like visual artists of the 20th century, writers sources of inspiration from other arts media were filtered and changed by the imagination in new and surprising ways. To quote Wallace Stevens, responding to Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
Today, ekphrastic poetry has become increasingly popular. Ekphrastic poems may be thought of as literary works that that are packed with poetic imagery about visual imagery created by another artist.
When art inspires art, something unique and wonderful happens. Ekphrastic poetry exposes readers to different modes of composition and provides them with material rich in detail, intensity, and connections across various times and spaces. For poets, reflection upon about other modes of creation while engaging in the process of creating poems offers a glimpse of the spirit in all created artworks: the profound center that speaks to experience and heart, and mind, body and soul.
Elements of Ekphrastic Poetry
1. LUCID DETAIL — This is a requirement of ekphrastic poetry—the single biggest boulder that anchors the poem to the form. An ekphrastic poem must be scaled with description derived from its source, such that you can hear the words slithering through the grass, vines, and leaves of the page. It must be variegated, and if its inspiration operates in colorless realms, it must emit the grey mists and bright blanknesses of the depths of that dearth. An ekphrastic poem must animate the most muted detail on the art it’s describing, bringing to life the onion-shaped rock smudged into the corner beside the white blob of the stoop. Without description, without imagery, no poem can function, but an ekphrastic poem will be even more leaden, bogged down by the pale, shapeless weight of its artistic source, like a log overtaken by ghostly fungi sinking into a bog.
2. POETIC RESPONSE—Through such intensive detail, ekphrastic poetry must attempt to impart the intellectual and emotional response evoked by the inspiring art. Remember, when someone reads an ekphrastic poem, they don’t always have the corresponding art in front of them, nor have they always already seen it; they only have the poet’s interpretation. This interpretation must convey the core of the original work and also amplify it by presenting the effect the piece had/can have through the combination of its various elements. Thus, an ekphrastic poem includes the poet’s intellectual and emotional energy that was stirred up by the animus of the work of art, to be presented like a steaming cauldron of yellow curry for the reader to dip into and pull out nourishing potato pieces.
3. FOCUS—An ekphrastic poem should not wander off to examine someone’s clog while in the midst of presenting a perspective on Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s “The Wassail.” Tangents are not forbidden, but they must bolster the interpretation of the artistic source rather than distract from it. After all, the main task of an ekphrastic poem is to intensify a piece of art’s impression through descriptive, attentive language.
4. A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST(S)—Though it’s not necessary, many ekphrastic poems will pull in the figure of the artist behind the work of art, so that the writing becomes almost biographical. In describing or hypothesizing about the mood and intent of the artist, the painting, sculpture, etc., being conjured up attains character, context, and depth. At the same time, the poet may also bring their own figure into the poem to create a bifocal lens with a meta-view of literature being written about art.
5. A PORTRAIT OF THE AUDIENCE—In a similar way, ekphrastic poems may also pull the audience itself into the roiling, colorful, complex soup that is words about other art. This breaking of the fourth wall has two effects: it helps the reader feel a certain sense of community with all the other people who have actually seen the original work, and it draws the reader’s attention to the fact that they are reading a poem about a work of art. Along those lines, an ekphrastic poem should make itself clear to its audience that it is an ekphrastic poem.
6. ARTWORK’S DERIVATIVE — Finally, ekphrastic poetry must revolve around a source that can be categorized as art. The poem cannot spring from nowhere; if it does, it’s simply a poem. The poet must identify one or several compositions — whether painting, song, or something else — as art, and from that definition, proceed to compose the literary piece. In other words, to write an ekphrastic poem, the poet must sit down with the goal of writing an ekphrastic poem about a creation they’ve already pin-pointed.
What to Do?
- Describe – translate what has caught your visual attention into written language. This is the simplest for of ekphrastic poetry.
- Describe but imagine beyond the artwork; think and write about what the artwork calls up for you (emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually).
3. Make Someone or Something in the Artwork Speak – give a voice to something or someone
in the artwork you're considering; let that person or things "speak" through your poem.
4. What the Artist Might Say – imagine the artist’s perspective his or inspiration for the artwork and the artwork itself; create a "voice" for the artist and on the artwork and let him or her speak through your poem.
5. Put Yourself into the Artwork – an ekphrastic moment poem may seemingly have little reference to the original artwork, and that's okay. this is the most challenging kind of ekphrasis and often produces startling and memorable results. The idea is to let the artwork lead you into something other than itself. Let your subconscious take over, introduce multiple subjects and layers of meaning.
Writing an Ekphrastic Poem
1. Spend some time looking at a painting.
Consider the following before writing:
- What is happening in the painting?
- Who or what is the subject of the painting?
- What mood does the painting suggest?
- How do you relate personally to that mood?
- How does the painting "speak" to you?
2. Poets create a "sensory pool" by paying close attention to sight, sound, color, light, feeling, movement and other tangible aspects of a subject. Try to disregard your analytical mind or any historical knowledge, and instead experience the artwork through your senses. A poet doesn't need to "know" facts about a piece of art. Instead, the poet experiences the artwork. Write down notes about what you experience—memories, sensations of smell or touch, impressions of the images you see inside the art. These will help you form your poem once you've decided on your approach.
3. You can approach the ekphrastic poem in several ways, and as the poet it's your choice. You may write about your experience viewing the art, about an experience the artwork draws from your memory or a monologue or story you imagine coming from a voice inside the painting or sculpture. For example, you might speak from the voice of the Mona Lisa or imagine what people are thinking as they stroll through Central Park in a painting. The choice is up to you, and what notes you jotted in your sensory pool will help you pick.
4. Arrange your notes into lines. You should know from your notes whether you're writing a narrative poem or a lyrical poem. A narrative poem tells a story, so if your notes have recorded a memory in story form, start from the beginning and tell the story using only concrete language of the five senses. If, instead, you've written a lyrical poem that is more of a collection of notions from an experience, begin to organize them into lines. For example, if your poem captures the scene of a busy sidewalk in a city where pedestrians are walking around a statue, organize your ideas based on how well the lines fit together, whether rhymes can be created, and whether you want to capture the flow of motion in the area.
5. Begin to revise your poem by reading it aloud. Listen to the way the words sound. If any lines are redundant or if several words are unnecessary cut them out. Focus on sound and alliteration, which means the repetition of a consonant or vowel sound. Look at the poem on the page and decide if you want it to have a particular shape. You might organize the lines into quatrains, or four-line stanzas, or you may decide on couplets, which are two-line stanzas. Your poem does not have to have any formal shape or structure at all, though, as it could be a free verse poem or a prose poem.
1. Select any work of art (it's a good idea to start with a painting, but any other artwork can be used), and let it "speak"to you.
2. Spend some time reflecting on the artwork.
3. Jot down notes or free write about the artwork.
4. Following the guidelines below, begin writing an ekphrastic poem.
You may want to create a dialogic in which you journey in "conversation" between the painting and your text. Or you may avoid referring to the painting at all (other than, perhaps, a mention in the title or subtitle).
Be sure to acknowledge the artwork somewhere in your poem (I like to do this at the beginning of the poem, just under the title).
1. Don’t just describe the artwork you’ve chosen; let the artwork be your guide and see where it leads you. Relate the artwork to something else (a memory, a person, an experience, a place).
2. Some ways to approach your poem:
· Speak directly to the artwork; that is, address the subject (or subjects) of the art.
· Write from the perspective of the artwork, or adopt the persona of the artwork itself (i.e., write as if you are the Mona Lisa.
· Write in the voice of the artist who created the artwork.
· Write from your own experience or imagination.
3. Work with strong images and, if you tell a story, be sure not to overtell.
4. Think about including some caesuras (pauses) for emphasis, and leave some things unsaid—give your readers space to fill in some blanks.
5. Pose an unanswered question or go for an element of surprise. Let your poem take an interesting or unexpected turn based on something triggered by the artwork.
6. Look at the “movement” of the artwork you’ve chosen and try to represent that movement in your line and stanza breaks. For example, if a painting “moves” across the canvas, find a way to suggest similar movement in the way you indent and create line breaks.
Here’s an example from my book A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing at All. A few years ago, one of my closest friends committed suicide, something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Shortly after, I was looking through a book of Pre-Raphaelite paintings when I came across Millais’s Ophelia. I thought about Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” and remembered how Ophelia’s death took place off stage. For me, the backstory of both my friend’s suicide, the play, and the painting resulted in the following poem:
(After Ophelia by John Everett Millais)
Buoyed by her dress, she barely breaks the water’s surface—arms outstretched, palms upturned. Pansies float above her skirt. There are daisies on the glassy stream, and, there (to the left, above her head), a bird on the pollard from which she jumped or fell. Broken willow, broken bough.
And just perhaps, as Hamlet’s mother said, she’s still alive and singing—see, her mouth is open, and her eyes; and just perhaps, she doesn’t know how close to death she is—or why this painting makes me think of you. Your death was not offstage the way Ophelia’s was (the ladder placed, the rope around your neck); nor was the way you parted from yourself, the silent swinging—only air beneath your feet.
Copyright © 2016 by Adele Kenny. All rights reserved.
From A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing at All, Welcome Rain Publishers