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.
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), 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”
Percy Bysshe Shelley – “On the Meduse of Leonardo da Vinci”
Frank O’Hara – “Why I am Not a Painter”
John Ashbury – “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
Take a look at these poems and their sources of inspiration!
One of the most famous Ekphrastic poems is W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which was based on Breughel’s “Fall of Icarus" (shown below).