How To Write an Ekphrastic Poem — About an Artwork
Ekphrasis is not about just describing, it’s about “seeing” in a different way
The painting, the sculpture, the vase — they’re often in a museum or gallery, and they’re often cordoned off so you can’t get close. You may be surrounded by dozens of others, or able to sit alone on a seat and gaze. But for artworks that stir us in some way, the poets among us feel the urge to write a poem.
An ekphrastic poem is a response to the artwork, but not just how you feel about it. In fact, those often make the worst kinds of poems. Those feelings come from mind and heart and can be mostly subconscious. In trying to capture your feelings, you can end up with clichés and blandness.
What’s worse and also ineffective is to simply describe the artwork. Certainly there will be descriptive elements to use, but why describe something than anyone can Google and look at for themselves? You have to ask what more you can bring to it.
So how do you approach this kind of poem? From an angle, as if you are looking at the artwork sideways, trying to catch it in flight, or seeing into its layers. There are lots of possibilities which can take you either close to art or wing you far away. It’s the poem that eventuates that counts.
Ways of writing
· Write as if you are in the painting, taking part in whatever is happening. You may be the subject, or you may be a bit player. You could be the dog in the corner or the angel hovering. Imagine yourself into the scene, imagine your voice and your experience, how you came to be there.
Or write about one aspect of the painting — the dancer with worn shoes and what she will do in a few minutes, or the small child in ten years time.
· Write as if you are inside the sculpture, or you are the subject (an obvious example is Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker”). If the sculpture is more abstract, ignore the title and give it your own, and start your poem from there. For example, this sculpture by David Smith is called “Australia”. Give it your own title and write about what you think it is.
· Write about how the artwork makes you feel, but by displacing the feeling onto something else. For example, for a pottery vase that was embossed with leaves, I wrote a love poem about the tree and the heat of a summer afternoon (see below). The “something else” can be anything in the artwork itself, or it can be what comes to mind when you look at it.
· Write about what is happening just outside the frame. If you look at one of Monet’s haystack paintings, you could imagine the farm and the farmer, or what haymaking day was like, or the time ahead when the hay will be used. There are paintings of villages where you can imagine what is happening inside the houses; the same with city streets.
· Write as if you are the artist or sculptor. Are you just beginning, or are you stuck? Or have you just completed it? Perhaps it is not what you planned, but you like this better. Or you hate it but someone has already paid for it so you have to hand it over.
· What questions does the artwork make you ask? Write down all the questions and choose the one that interests you the most — try to answer it through your poem.
· Write about your experience of the artwork where it is. For example, I wrote about the Mona Lisa, about my viewing of it — how small it seemed, how it was trapped behind glass, how it was impossible to get close because of the dozens of people with phones on selfie sticks trying to take photos. You can also write about someone else you observe viewing the same artwork — a child, for example, whose grandparent is laboriously explaining the artwork to them. Or the art students who sit and draw their responses.
· Relate the artwork to your own experience. It may be that it reminds you of something or someone in your life, either in the past or present. You can use descriptive elements of the artwork as a way to describe the experience.
· Research the artwork and write about the time it was created in, or the artist, or the response they received (those painting in experimental styles were often greatly criticized at the time). For example, you might write about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge, and his paintings of the dancers, or write from the perspective of a dancer.
Remember that you don’t have to actually be there in the gallery either. So many artworks are online now for you to look at. This article provides you with ten of the most famous. I often buy postcards of artworks I see in museums and galleries, because they stir me but there is no time or space to write the poem at the time.
This is my poem about the vase with leaves in the National Gallery of Victoria.
In the dusty heat
of a Melbourne summer afternoon
red spikes flare in the street,
brush vermilion on azure.
Sunlight sears the edges
of everything, metal gates
burn to the touch,
the air holds its breath.
In the cool clay evening
of autumn blush and caress,
your hands slide over me,
your fingers, as they
brush my face,
are softly serrated
like bottlebrush leaves.