“Ekphrastic” is a terrific poetry word. Distinct, fun to say, visually interesting. The Poetry Foundation provides this definition: “An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.”
I’ve written several poems inspired by art, photography and sculpture. I love using images as starting points for poetry – most of the time those images are serendipitous. My poem “tethered” (from my first book “canvas“) was inspired during a walk along the Pacific coast. “The Plague Doctor” (first published in The Dillydoun Review) was inspired by a photo a friend shared. I’ll use several poems inspired by art to demonstrate how I approach creating ekphrastic poetry.
The first example is a poem inspired by a beautiful 16th century painting of a Neapolitan woman holding a cockerel (aka rooster). I immediately connected with the painting, the rich colors, the oddness of a woman holding a cockerel. I knew that the poem would be centered on the cockerel, rather than the woman. This poem was awarded 2nd place in the Oprelle 2022 Oxbow Poetry Contest.
A sonnet for a Neapolitan cockerel After Woman in Neapolitan Costume, ca. 1635 by Massimo Stanzione, Legion of Honor Museum (San Francisco, California) You won’t linger on delicate details painted in oil, the lace as light as air stitched to velvet, purple on red. Nor pale face—androgynous. Neither can compare to the cockerel, calm and cradled firm with red comb brilliant and speckled feathers, spindly legs snuggly tied so claws can’t squirm. Companion? Fighter? The two, together, make quite the pair, now ready to impress Napoli’s finest at the viceroy’s ball where princes will puff, exquisitely dressed, eyes on the hunt, making maiden catcalls. Still the cockerel, cool and sure, on guard for his princess in the festooned courtyard.
The form of the poem didn’t start as a Shakespearean sonnet – that form emerged after I wrote a series of phrases and images, thought about the time period of the painting and detail design of the painting. A sonnet just felt right. I had also recently interviewed poet A.E. Stallings, who is a master at writing poetry using received forms, and challenged myself to hiding the form (which is a strict syllabic rhyming scheme using iambic pentameter). To the extent possible I wanted to avoid ending lines on a rhyme, and rhyming with monosyllabics (advice from Stallings). The final edit of the poem, swapping “rooster” for “cockerel” (and adjusting for the extra syllable) was thanks to a wonderful note from Ms. Stallings. Who am I to argue with a Pulitzer Prize Finalist?
Next let’s look at “landscape (after bert weir)” which was published by Wingless Dreamer in their “Flee to Spring” anthology.
landscape (after bert weir) where canvas ends and bush begins each watercolor brush stroke blends sky into spring when wildflowers bloom in bursts of blue a young buck pauses ears perked eyes peek then leaping through chlorophyll shaded grasses towards the painter forest creeps with fallen seeds that burrow deep across the meadow too long left fallow waiting for an arbor frame to mark the grove with summer greens smudged into indigo sky then reds in fall lead winter's march october nights with storm clouds build billowing greys mute treeline's edge a blur of hues pine needles blend while in the shadows empty spaces hide fallen branches made for kindling flames that light the easel’s canvas illuminating bushwall tales then finally all seasons blend as mother earth her colors called to dance upon a summer breeze or crisply waltz at autumn's peak or pause just so for northern lights that steal the palette and paint the sky
This poem was inspired by the paintings of Bert Weir, a renowned Canadian painter who passed away in 2018. I was asked to create a poem inspired by his art and life, so I started by reading about his life and looking at many of his paintings.
As with most of my poems I started by capturing images, sounds and rhythm using words and phrases, and not worrying about the form of the poem. I let the form and structure of the poem emerge from the raw images and through the process of revising and editing.
The temptation with an ekphrastic poem is to simply describe the image – and that’s a good place to start but the poem should be more than just a description. In this case I used the final stanza to bring in the image of mother earth, inspired by the style of the artist but an idea that goes beyond simply describing the art. I also found ways to sneak in Easter eggs pulled from the artist’s history. The “bushwall tales” phrase refers to a series of paintings by Weir.
The next example is from my book “canvas“:
carved 1 the sculptor prepares her tools a discarded dentist probe for subtle detail a twisted rake and wire brush to drape skin stepping back she searches inside the polymer clay block for figures hidden awaiting release she starts by sculpting with her fingers digging smoothing molding the clay until features emerge one tool then another shaping carving blending occasionally placing slabs of clay to form curled hair or add a flowing skirt the sculptor's world collapses inward city cacophony muted just fingers tools clay working until in time there is nothing left to carve 2 the poet prepares his tools a blank page for letters syllables words phrases a puzzle to untangle finding order and place stepping back he stares at the empty page searching memories for images to transform into well-ordered lines he starts with random words pleasing sounds rhymes and throwaway couplets to be worked and reworked words become phrases become stanzas whispered aloud to test their resonance set aside to revisit later discarded when impossible to mold the poet searches for perfection pacing the floor perplexed until with a final pen stroke the poem appears 3 the sculptor’s work set on a shelf the poet’s page slipped in a book visions carved in clay and words buried deep unseen unheard
This poem was challenging to get right. The idea was sparked by a sculpture created by Kari Byron (in addition to her success in multiple science education television series and EXPLR Media, she’s also an accomplished sculptor). A photo of the sculpture that inspired the poem is included below:
The sculpture was so distinct and macabre, but rather than describe the sculpture I decided to focus on the technique used to sculpt clay. Kari mentioned in a social media post that she likes to use dental tools when sculpting precise features – a terrific image to include.
I also did a bunch of research on the technique of sculpting which was very helpful – the ways in which clay is manipulated, folded, draped, carved. I watched multiple videos on YouTube of sculptors explaining their craft. Research frequently plays an important role in crafting poetry.
The core idea of the poem is how creating a sculpture and creating a poem are similar. I looked for parallels between physical molding and molding words and phrases, sounds and rhythms. The form of the poem started to emerge – equal numbers of stanzas, which equal numbers of lines. Centering the poem looked right – more like a sculpture, with symmetry.
The final stanza was a struggle – I needed a way to wrap up these two parallel worlds – sculpting and writing poetry. I re-wrote the final four lines countless times, setting the poem aside for days to let it ferment. I ultimately decided to close with the works of art completed but set aside, unseen by anyone but the artist. Alas, so much incredible art is created but never seen.
Finally, former Emeryville Poet Laureate Sarah Kobrinsky (author of “Nighttime on the Other Side of Everything”) recently led fifteen poets in an ekphrastic celebration of San Francisco Bay Area art. The annual event brings together local poets to write ekphrastic poetry, and then perform the poems backed by a jazz duo who improvise as they hear the poems for the first time.
As I wandered through the gallery, I was looking not just for a piece of art that was beautiful or striking, but a piece of art that connected with me in some way or that sparked a unique idea. “Western House (Lever and Stone)” by Frank Cole made me stop and imagine being pulled into the painting. That was the hook – what if I could lift myself into the painting and explore the word Cole had created with pigment? What would it be like if I joined that two dimensional world? It was thrilling to have a jazz duo respond to my words and capture the spirit of the poem with sound. The only prompt I provided, just before performing, was “southwest eerie”. Poetry responding to art, jazz responding to poetry, a triple-layered ekphrastic feast!
Hiding from The Curator (After “Western House (Lever and Stone)” by Frank Cole, 36th Annual Emeryville Art Exhibition, Emeryville, CA) I’m alone now, staring at acrylic strokes of grayish-blue: a painted home with picture windows and doorway opening on a southwest vista rich with cumulus. The Curator breaks the silence announcing over loudspeaker buzz Our gallery is closing, we hope you enjoyed your stay. But I'm not ready to leave so I hoist myself up and into the canvas clambering onto the home’s wood plank floor. Inviting trails just outside the door head east, and north, between desert shrubs and olive trees, among succulents, cacti, and parched grasses. The distant hills are less defined, brush stroke smudges, splatches of green, thinly drawn curves on the horizon. I head north on tan gravel, glance back, and The Curator’s there— his face perplexed as our eyes meet so I hold still for seconds-minutes-hours until he disappears leaving me to blend into pigment shadows.
I introduced “The Curator” character to add an element of eerie to the poem, to have a witness to my disappearance into the painting. As with the other examples I attempted to provide just enough descriptive context while still being poetic. This is common challenge with ekphrastic poetry – ensuring the poem stands on its own.
Finally, It’s important that you test your poem with people who haven’t seen the reference art – are they confused? Do they have a clear image (even if it doesn’t match the source material?) Does the poem create an emotional connection that goes beyond the descriptive? In writing ekphrastic poetry you will become intimate with the work of art that is serving as your muse, and appreciate the art so much more.
All poems copyright 2020, 2021 & 2022 James Morehead
Your article, “Writing ekphrastic poetry”, was an absolute joy to read. The City of Dublin is truly blessed to have you as their Poet Laureate.