Saturday, February 11, 2017

Prompt #274 – Where the Painting Stops and the Poem Begins

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 
By Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1818)

Every now and then, I like to revisit ekphrasis (using other art forms as inspiration for poems)—we’ve done it before on the blog, and I thought it might be a nice time of year to relax and to write an ekphrastic poem.

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 the last decade. Right now, it seems to be especially popular.

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.

Through the centuries of literary history, such poets as John Keats, in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (ceramic art rather than painting, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), have experimented with Ekphrastic poetry. Robert Browning, in his poems “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto,” created dramatic monologues in which painters muse to themselves about their paintings. Other poets who have worked with Ekphrastic poetry include:

William Carlos Williams – “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”
Maria Rainer Rilke – “Archaic Torso of Apollo”
Frank O’Hara – “Why I Am Not a Painter” 


1. Use the image above (click on it to see a larger view) or choose a work of art on your own (painting, sculpture, musical composition, photograph, etc.) and write a poem based on it.

2. 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.
3. Work with strong images and, if you tell a story, be sure not to overtell it.

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:

Just Perhaps

(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


  1. I love ekphrastic poetry, and your poem is stunning! Thank you!

    1. Thank YOU, Jamie! Your comments are always much appreciated!

  2. Hi Adele, 

    Your poem is one of my favourites from the book.  

    Below is a poem based on the painting Eleven A.M., 1926 by Edward Hopper.

    ~ ~ ~

    It's Eleven A.M. Says Edward Hopper 

    A Sunday through the window kind of light.
    And naked seated in the chair
    her hands as though
    holding something-
    something to hold on to I suppose 

    and see the drawer behind her the top one 
    I suppose inside's a letter 
    written by her lover
    says it's over I suppose.  
    And see her feet on the grass
    a triangle piece of sunlit carpet
    I suppose it's back to the window
    and the streets below  
    the people going somewhere
    best to let them go I suppose.

    ~ ~ ~ 

    Link to the painting—

    1. Hi, Lewis! Great to see you back on the blog. Thanks so much for your kind words about my poem, and thank you for posting yours! Your opening line is superb, a great lead into the rest of the poem and great use of the repeated phrase "I suppose." Beautifully done!

    2. Thank you, Adele, it's good to be back reading and posting here again. I am still catching up on the previous posts. Glad you like the opening line of the poem. I spent a while looking for a painting that seemed to be a reflection of my mood at the time, all the while keeping in mind a lot of what you have written about poetry, which is always appreciated, especially the time and care you put into making this such a first class blog. :)

    3. Well done, Lewis! Great to read you again!

    4. Hi, Jamie,

      Feels like being in the company of friends again. :)

  3. What a (pardon the expression) kick-ass opening line — I can absolutely feel that "kind of light." A great ekphrastic poem! Thank you for sharing the poem and the link to the painting.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Sandy! I'm sure Lewis will appreciate your words about his poem.

    2. Thank you so much, Sandy, I really do appreciate your comment. The whole poem just seemed to grow out of that opening line. As soon as I found the painting I knew exactly what I wanted to express. I wish I could do a kick ass job on every poem, but, alas! :)

  4. Thanks, Adele! My students have always enjoyed ekphrasis, and I know they'll like this one. The picture is evocative in a subtle way. I'll have them do a free write first or maybe a list of things suggested by the painting.


    Thank you for posting your poem. That first line is a great opening. Thanks, too, for posting the link to the painting that inspired your poem.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Rich. Starting with a list is a great way to get your students "into" this prompt. Hope they all write great poems for you.

    2. Thank you, Rich, most of the time I really have no idea how others receive the poems so, it's always good to get some feedback — much appreciated. :)