Ekphrastic Poetry

Ekphrastic Poetry

Have you ever wandered through an art gallery, found a painting, and thought, “That looks like it should be a poem!” Or have you ever read a poem and thought that it sounded a lot like a painting you’ve seen? If so, then you know the idea behind ekphrastic poetry.

An ekphrastic poem is based on a work of art. Usually, ekphrastic poems are written about a painting, but they can also be based on a sculpture, an object, or even architecture. One of the earliest examples is in the Iliad, when Homer describes Achilles’ shield. Another famous example is John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

In an ekphrastic poem, the poet usually describes some part of the work of art and may extend their own thoughts on the work’s underlying story or significance. Ekphrastic poems are wonderful ways to stretch your powers of observation and find stories hidden in the world of art!

Examples

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, MoMA

Staring at the Night

Honor Moorman

Perhaps
he too
once stood
just here
head tilted
eyes licking
the orangey
crescent moon
exploding stars
flaming cypress
swirling silver sky

his imagination
suspended
in the silent city
beneath quaking
black mountains
secret recesses
of a tender
growing night

Van Gogh
whispering
to his soul
with furious
brushstrokes
as I cannot
with this
trickle
of words
he will
never
read

Books of Ekphrastic Poetry

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Paint Me a Poem: Poems Inspired by Masterpieces of Art by Justine Rowden
Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from Around the World by Jan Greenberg
Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art by Jan Greenberg

Create an Ekphrastic Poem

Look at a painting closely

How would you describe the color palette: is it cool or warm, bright or dull? What about the composition: is it realistic or fantastical or a combination of both? What is the subject? Where is the subject located? What is happening in the image? What do you think the artist is trying to say?

Freewrite

Set a timer for 5-10 minutes and jot down your observations. Don't worry about punctuation or grammar. Just write.

Shape your thoughts into a poem

Use a simple poetic form such as 

More Resources

Wonderful blog post on ekphrastic poetry by The Miss Rumphius Effect.
Article from the English Journal about teaching ekphrastic poetry.
List of famous ekphrastic poems collected by Emory University.

Ekphrastic Poetry

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