Issue 4: Ekphrasis

"shining and haloed and / consumed by the dark"

Turning Visual Art into Poetry

Ekphrasis is a literary exercise where a writer vividly describes a work of art, usually a painting or visual art piece. Therefore an ekphrastic poem is a response, imagining, or description inspired by a piece of art. Ekphrastic poetry can be about something real (actual ekphrasis) or something imagined (notional ekphrasis).1

From the description of the Shield of Achille’s in Homer’s Iliad, to Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, ekphrastic poetry has been a long-standing form that encourages conversation and interaction between mediums, extending the life of music, literature, sculpture, and other art forms with a constant metamorphosis.

Here’s an example from Anne Carson, whose poem2 was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks:

I wanted to run away with you tonight 
but you are a difficult woman 
the rules of you— 

Past and future circle round us 
     now we know more now less 
          in the institute of shadows. 

          On a street black as windows
     with nothing to confess 
our distances found us

the rules of you— 
so difficult a woman 
I wanted to run away with you tonight.

Yet I say boldly that I know that if nothing passed away, time past were not.
And if nothing were coming, time future were not.
And if nothing were, time present were not.

Rather than writing a detailed description of the painting, Carson imagines the story behind the gathering of individuals in Hopper’s late-night bar. Even the shape of Carson’s poem becomes part of the conversation, the spacing reminiscent of the restaurant’s curving, wide windows.

In this week’s poetic exercise, I’ll be responding to one of my favorite pieces of art, La Jeune Martyr by Paul Delaroche. I first saw this painting when I was about 12 years old at the Louve, and it had a strong visual and emotional impact on me. In the dim light of the gallery, I couldn’t make out the boat against the rocky shore, or the high cliff face, or even the two figures standing upon the hill. I was instead struck by the high contrast of the floating body against a black sea of oil paint. The inherent tragedy of this piece still haunts me, which is why I chose it for my ekphrastic poem:

Hive Poem: La Jeune Martyr


oil slick night breaks dawn and
buoyed below         in a clear pool,
she lies suspended         at the surface
still and illuminated         by some
otherworldly light

her gown becomes a shroud
soaked and pale         against the 
shore where they find her
shining and haloed and 
consumed         by the dark

who tied her hands with rope?

who led her to this place, to 
drown             in glass?

what more is there to say
    about another         watered body
    about another         case cold
    about another         dead girl
    
except—        what is left
                           behind?

Before writing this poem, I made sure to give myself time to sit with the painting itself. I took in the images that I was seeing and wrote them down in my notebook: the translucent water, the halo emanating light, her white dress, the cliffside, the shore, her tied hands. I also wrote down any descriptors or words that came to me as I took in the painting, like: oil slick, shadows, shine, gown, skin. Even though I didn’t use all of these phrases or images in the final poem, I like to brainstorm to create jumping-off points for crafting a piece.

Write your own ekphrastic poem

This week, choose an art piece and write an ekphrastic poem. Maybe choose a piece of art that you love or go on a virtual museum tour to find artistic inspiration. It doesn’t have to be visual art; you can also choose a piece of music, a photograph, a story from a book, or even a dream.

There is no wrong way to write an ekphrastic poem, and no set form; you can include meter, rhymes, or any other strict form to give yourself an extra challenge. If it helps, you can do something similar to what I did:

  1. Spend a couple of minutes looking at or listening to your chosen piece of art. Imagine you just happened upon it displayed at a museum. What are some images that you see? How do you feel?

  2. Write down any words, phrases, colors, or images that come to mind. Write down the questions the art brings up for you.

  3. If you get stuck, get descriptive! Write the poem as if you are describing it in detail to someone who can’t see it.

  4. Or, you can choose to write a piece that is focused on a narrative. What happened before, during, or after this piece of art? If there are creatures in the painting, give them characters, motivation, even dialogue.

If you want, share your poem with me! I’d love to see what you come up with :)

About hive poems

Hive poems are poems I write weekly with the help of my friends on Instagram. Sometimes I restrict myself to word banks using nouns and verbs people submit to me, or I run a poll so that you can choose my poetic form of the week. Want to be a part of this madness? I’ll be posting call-outs for suggestions every Sunday in my Instagram stories.


Final Thoughts

It’s been a pretty transformative week for me; I start a new job next week, so soon I’ll be working from home full-time. I’m also grateful for my friends that have been keeping me company virtually over this entire pandemic, but especially lately. They’ve really kept me buoyed during times when I’ve felt a little lost at sea.

I’m also grateful for you taking the time for reading this little thing. I’ve been excited to push myself to write more poetry lately, and hope you’ve been enjoying it, too. If you end up writing an ekphrastic poem, feel free to share with me by email or in the substack comments :)

Along with the ekphrastic poem I wrote above, I’ll be writing four more hive poems based on art suggested by friends. I’ll be posting them on Instagram and will probably include them in next week’s issue, too. Thanks again for reading!


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I frequently post stanzas on Instagram, as well as my thoughts on social justice, capitalism, and the literary world on Twitter. Let’s bee friends virtually and talk books, art, and how little I’m prepared for the snow in the forecast next week…

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Megan

1

Craven, Jackie. “Ekphrastic Poetry: How Poets Engage With Art.” ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/ekphrastic-poetry-definition-examples-4174699.

2

Carson, Anne. Men In The Off Hours. Vintage Digital, 2011.