• Ekphrastic Art

    Words from art and back again… 

    Ever since the Roman poet Horace set down in his Ars Poetica (c. 13 BC) the dictum "ut pictura poesis"--"as is painting, so is poetry"--the two arts have been wedded in the critical mind. Poets and painters sometimes turn to one another for inspiration, and the dialogue has been mutually beneficial.

    In ekphrasis, or ekphrastic art, there are initially two imaginations at work—that of the original artist, and that of the respondent through his/her medium.

    Look at the examples below which are poems created in reaction to art.  Research other examples of ekphrastic art and poetry.  Make notes, find examples and make thumbnails.

    When you are fully comfortable with this art form, create your own piece of art inspired by a poem or other piece of writing. 

    Size and Media are open                  

    Poetry inspired by paintings:
    Rind by M.C. Escher

    The critic
    resolves her sonnets
    into empty feet.

    The boss
    rejects proposals
    he has barely skimmed.

    The husband
    compares her pilaf
    to swill for hogs.

    The gas
    she hopes will kill her
    leaks away.

    The analyst
                          unpeels her
                                                 till she disappears.
    Poem by Catherine A. Callaghan
    Marcel Duchamp- Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
    Nude Descending a Staircase
    Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
    A gold of lemon, root and rind,
    She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
    With nothing on. Nor on her mind.
    We spy beneath the banister
    A constant thresh of thigh on thigh--
    Her lips imprint the swinging air
    That parts to let her parts go by.
    One-woman waterfall, she wears
    Her slow descent like a long cape
    And pausing, on the final stair
    Collects her motions into shape.
    Poem by X. J. Kennedy
    Painting inspired by Poetry:
     no 5
    I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
    Charles Demuth (1928)
    "The Great Figure"
    William Carlos Williams (1920)

    Among the rain 
    and lights 
    I saw the figure 5 
    in gold 
    on a red 
    to gong clangs 
    siren howls 
    and wheels rumbling 
    through the dark city. 

    Student work -inspired by various liturature
    Poems Inspired by artwork (click on the audio to hear the poem being read)
    Poem #1
    "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad"
    Edward Hirsch (1995)


    Out here in the exact middle of the day,
    This strange, gawky house has the expression
    Of someone being stared at, someone holding
    His breath underwater, hushed and expectant;

    This house is ashamed of itself, ashamed
    Of its fantastic mansard rooftop
    And its pseudo-Gothic porch, ashamed
    of its shoulders and large, awkward hands. 

    But the man behind the easel is relentless.
    He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
    The house must have done something horrible
    To the people who once lived here 

    Because now it is so desperately empty,
    It must have done something to the sky
    Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
    And devoid of meaning. There are no 

    Trees or shrubs anywhere--the house
    Must have done something against the earth.
    All that is present is a single pair of tracks
    Straightening into the distance. No trains pass. 

    Now the stranger returns to this place daily
    Until the house begins to suspect
    That the man, too, is desolate, desolate
    And even ashamed. Soon the house starts 

    To stare frankly at the man. And somehow
    The empty white canvas slowly takes on
    The expression of someone who is unnerved,
    Someone holding his breath underwater. 

    And then one day the man simply disappears.
    He is a last afternoon shadow moving
    Across the tracks, making its way
    Through the vast, darkening fields. 

    This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
    And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
    Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
    Always they will have this same expression, 

    The utterly naked look of someone
    Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
    Someone who is about to be left alone
    Again, and can no longer stand it. 
    Poem #2

    Audio Version
    Girl Powdering Her Neck

    Cathy Song    
    The light is the inside
    sheen of an oyster shell,
    sponged with talc and vapor,
    moisture from a bath.

    A pair of slippers
    are placed outside
    the rice-paper doors.
    She kneels at a low table
    in the room,
    her legs folded beneath her
    as she sits on a buckwheat pillow.

    Her hair is black
    with hints of red,
    the color of seaweed
    spread over rocks.

    Morning begins the ritual
    wheel of the body,
    the application of translucent skins.
    She practices pleasure:
    the pressure of three fingertips
    applying powder.
    Fingerprints of pollen
    some other hand will trace.

    Poem #3

    "Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids"
    Lisel Mueller (1988)

    Who is that man in black, walking
    away from us into the distance?
    The painter, they say, took a long time
    finding his vision of the world. 

    The mermaids, if that is what they are
    under their full-length skirts,
    sit facing each other
    all down the street, more of an alley,
    in front of their gray row houses.
    They all look the same, like a fair-haired
    order of nuns, or like prostitutes
    with chaste, identical faces.
    How calm they are, with their vacant eyes,
    their hands in laps that betray nothing.
    Only one has scales on her dusky dress. 

    It is 1942; it is Europe,
    and nothing fits. The one familiar figure
    is the man in black approaching the sea,
    and he is small and walking away from us. 

Last Modified on March 12, 2018