A couple of years ago, I co-led a writing workshop at the Trappistine Monastery in New Brunswick with the wonderful poet and novelist Anne Simpson. There were five women writers who attended, all at different stages of their careers and all writing in different genres. One was a poet, named Anne Koval, who had a very specific style of poetry that I had never heard of, but that I instantly found fascinating.
It’s called Ekphrastic Poetry. These are poems based on a specific piece of art, often a painting. One of the most famous is W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts,’ inspired after many visits to the museum when he was living in Brussels. Other examples are Rainer Marie Rilke’s ‘Torso of Apollo’ and Don McLean’s ‘Starry, Starry Night’ (a poem in a song).
The etymology of the word is “ek” meaning “out” and “phrastic” meaning “to speak,” so ekphrasis is “to speak out” for the visual work that inspired the poem. The term has been around since the ancient Greeks when Homer described the bronze shield of Achilles in the Iliad.
When Anne first started writing this type of poetry, she would go to galleries and sit in front of the works themselves. At some point she realized that she could write on any work of art using good images from the internet. The poem below is based on a painting she had long loved (The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius – pictured above), but had yet to visit in person. It was published in Queen’s Quarterly in 2016.
The Artist and the Bird
I have carried this painting in my head
on its wooden feeding box
its looped chain
keeping it captive
In the last year of his life,
he painted it—dreaming
the possibilities of paint
Each day in the cobbled courtyard
he passed the bird on its brass perch
grain seeds in his pocket
watched intelligence flicker
in its watchful eye
The day he decided
I will paint that bird
the rail empty
a swinging chain
Painted from memory
the bird still in his head
he gave it to the Delft lady
who so loved
her little Puttertj
A good Dutch housewife
she used it as a cupboard door
The painting by Fabritius has inspired other people as well. Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Goldfinch features the painting in its title and its pages!
One of the advantages of writing an ekphrastic poem is that you have starting point. This is a little less daunting than coming up with an idea out of thin air. There’s also a valuable feeling of companionship. You are allowing someone else’s work of art to inspire you. This sense of camaraderie can fuel so much good work, even if the artist is long dead.
If you feel like you’d like to try this out yourself, simply choose a piece of art, perhaps a favourite painting. It doesn’t have to be famous. It could be something you found at a garage sale or something your favourite five-year-old drew. If you want to opt for something totally new, head to your local art gallery, or go online, and find a painting (or another piece of art) that speaks to you.
Consider these questions to get you started: What do you see in this piece of art? What do you think the artist is trying to convey? What do you feel when you look at it? Is there a narrative that is surfacing for you? What would this art piece say if it had words? Does your own story show up in some way as you respond to this piece?
An additional challenge, should you choose: Pay attention to other forms of art you feel inspired by. Open your mind to ways that your own writing could be influenced by someone else’s creations.