Saturday, May 18, 2013

Prompt #146 – Portrait Poem

I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.
– Frida Kahlo

When I first saw DaVinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre many years ago, I understood why it’s probably the most famous portrait in the world. Another famous portrait with which many are familiar is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which inspired the 2003 film of the same title. There are, of course, countless portraits in museums and galleries—faces that look back at us and make us wonder about their painted subjects. This week, the goal is to write a poem in which you create a “word portrait” of yourself (the person you know best, as Frida Kahlo notes in the quote above). Importantly, you will need to be descriptive, but the extra challenge is to be judicious in your use of adjectives and details.

1. One way to begin is to generate a list of words that describe or tell something about you. In generating this list, think about your personality, interests, relationships, memories, loves, dislikes, and desires.
2. Now, imagine looking into a mirror that reveals more than your physical image. What do you see? Add what you see to your list.
3. Next, choose three items from your list and begin writing about them. You’ll need to find connectors and complements for these items, and you’ll need to think hard about yourself in terms of how the items from your list impact or reflect you as a whole.
4. Begin writing (a free write first may be helpful). Review what you’ve written and work the best of it into your poem.
5. Think in terms of metaphors. What extended metaphor might you use to “word paint” your portrait?
6. Alternatively, create a word portrait of someone you know. Follow the same general process, and be sure you select someone you know well. A third possibility (if the first two don’t work for you) would be to write a poem about a famous portrait (in writing a poem based on a painting, you’ll be doing an ekphrastic poem—see prompt #79, September 19, 2011).



  1. What fun! This is such a great idea and can be adapted to a range of age groups. Thanks, Adele!

    1. Thanks, Jamie! So glad you like the prompt!

    2. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)May 21, 2013 at 8:32 AM

      Lovely prompt, Adele.

      I've been reading about the 17-year cicada appearances in the US. Do you have them in your part of the country? Is there a prompt there?

      Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

    3. Thanks, Maire!

      Yes, the 17-year cicadas have begun to emerge in my neighborhood. They don't seem as numerous as the last time, but maybe there are more coming. The humming noise hasn't started yet. The first time I heard it, it sounded like aliens had landed. Quite an experience!

  2. - WHOA, IS ME!? -

    ...Went searching
    for the Me, the
    other (& others?),
    nay of this Persona or
    cloaked in Person-ality...

    An Odyssey
    of sortee & sorting
    deporting of Self,
    heather & bog
    nary sporting...
    but was the Prince a Frog?

    hither & yon
    Stonehenged West
    to the Easter Isle
    Song for the Riff Valley, nostrum tally
    beckons avenged Montezuma

    The 99,000th. Buddha,
    perhaps of Mutang?
    (Hey, might be aquashed they of Qigong,
    now the Red machine churning Green!)

    But Confucion?
    Aye, & Nay
    for this Day went searching
    in not a Fourth Way...
    Went searching (for the Me's)
    cloaked & clayed sans Persona, alone
    Gentleman of Verona, beyond
    the desiccated, cold... asking
    "Who's old bones there lay, who's
    are they?, Pray -
    "Whoa, is Me?"


    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Haro! You've done some wonderful things with sonic impression (internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance).

  3. Adele - Thank you for posting this piece; the curious thing is Its composition parallels the tenor of a James Taylor song, "Pity On The Frozen Man," unbeknownst to me (would like to believe I was channeling my muse; haughty to consider he was channeling best a reciprocity of wave forms & energies).

    1. Most interesting, HaroHalola. The sound quality is quite distinctive. Is that something you define as part of your style and something that you develop deliberately (or is it something that evolves more organically as you write)?

  4. Jamie - Hearty thanks; certainly a lifetime as a professional singer/musician (drums, guitar, some piano [lol]) is a huge contributory factor into the sonics of the poetry; this said, It has been a honing & refining process both consciously & humbly-subconsciously. Effective poetry (writing) is gift + talent (acquired craft/skill. My eagerness to "surprise" is one of the foremost tenets of my work, i.e. attempts at never stepping into the same river more than twice. I go with the flow (Muse/Akashic/organic) & hope the skills present to carry It up & down stream.

    I am quite pleased by your enquiry; again, thank you.

    1. HaroHalola, the music connection makes good sense and explains the rhythms and sounds. Well done!

    2. HaroHalola,

      I know that Taylor song. Haunting – as your poem is. Do you ever set your poems to music?

      Frozen Man Lyrics:

  5. From your comment, I glean you are a rich Mandel, wealthy in healthiest this regard (Mandel-Mantel) we are related (Howie don't 'llow nobody t' touch him). Thank you, cousin, for the shout; when I write, invariably there's music streaming, so of-a-fashion, my poetry is set to music. However, in your classical meaning, friends/folks/critics have for longest whiles encouraged & urged my work be "auditory;" to date, the short answer is not yet. Thank you for the applied & implied approbation. Any subscriber to my muse, JT, is ever-welcomed.

  6. WHO am i?
    who AM i?
    who am I?
    I don't know.
    i DON'T know.
    i don't KNOW.
    Do you?

    1. Who ever does know, right? Thanks, Risa, for sharing!

  7. Risa - I prefigure you, you prefigure me? Chronology unessential...this composed late, last night, slated for a Wastebook post:

    "Do you like my body?" "Do you?" "Well, yes!" "So?" "And my mind, do you like my mind?" "I wouldn't be here." "So, umm, do you like, me?" "I don't know..."

  8. The Mona Lisa's popularity/fame is interesting. Ever wonder why this particular painting remains among the world's best-known?

    1. Good question, Bob, and one that a lot of people have asked!

      Behind the mystique of the Mona Lisa is the mystique of Leonardo da Vinci. There’s also the mystique of the model (the painting is also called La Gionconda, after the supposed sitter Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Little is known about the woman, expect that she was part of the prominent Gherardini family in Florence). And, of course, there’s the mystique of the Renaissance in general. 

      Other masterpieces are equally important but this one commands the spotlight in a way that’s as inexplicable as the subject's half-smile. Described as enigmatic, that half-smile has puzzled people from Sigmund Freud to countless casual observers.

      One theory about the painting's popularity hinges on its theft on August 22, 1911. Although the Mona Lisa was far from obscure at the time of the theft, it certainly wasn't the most visited item in the museum. DaVinci painted the portrait between 1503 and 1507, and it was not until the 1860s that art critics claimed the Mona Lisa was one of the finest examples of Renaissance painting. This assessment wasn't widely known, though, except within scholarly circles, and interest in the painting remained relatively negligible. In his 1878 guidebook to Paris, travel writer Karl Baedeker wrote a paragraph about the portrait, but in 1907 he wrote only two sentences, devoting more space to other artworks in the Louvre, including the Venus de Milo. The high-profile theft in 1911, however, catapulted the Mona Lisa into enormous fame through media interest, various theories about the heist, and theories about the painting itself (a few months before the painting was found, the New York Times speculated that Louvre restorers had bungled a Mona Lisa restoration job and to cover it up concocted the story of the theft). Subsequent to the Mona Lisa's return, it became world-famous and the most visited object in the Louvre.

      Such enormous fame can be a liability. In 1956, the lower part of the painting was severely damaged when someone threw acid at it; the restoration took several years. On December 30, 1956, Ugo Ungaza Villegas, a young Bolivian woman, damaged the painting by throwing a rock at it. This resulted in the loss of a fleck of pigment near the left elbow, which was later painted over. Bulletproof glass has shielded the Mona Lisa from later attacks. In April 1974, a woman, upset by the museum's policy for disabled people, sprayed red paint at the painting while it was on display at the Tokyo National Museum. On August 2, 2009, a Russian woman, who was denied French citizenship, threw a terra cotta mug that she purchased at the Louvre, at the painting. The mug shattered against the glass enclosure, but thankfully, but the glass did its job, and the painting wasn't damaged in either of the attacks.

      Although the subject of the portrait is most likely Lisa del Giocondo, other "identity theories" have been posed. One popular theory is that the painting was a self-portrait. There are definite similarities between the facial features of the Mona Lisa and the artist's self-portrait painted many years later, and people suggest that this is why Leonardo gave the subject an enigmatic smile. Another theory is that the Mona Lisa is a portrait of Leonardo's mother and that he used his own features to support memories of his mother's face.

      Apparently the painting meant something special to DaVinci because he never sold it and carried it with him for the rest of his life.

    2. I didn't know any of that about the Mona Lisa.

      I love the way this blog offers so many creative ideas, as well as educational and historical!

      Thanks, Adele!