What is Ekphrastic Poetry
The term Ekphrastic or ecphrasis means ‘description’ in Greek. The term ekphrastic often refers to a vivid, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art. An ekphrastic poem can be defined as a response to another visual work of art such as a sculpt, painting or performance. Therefore, this poem is a tribute to another work of art. This type of poetry has a long history; these can be found in work of Homer and Horace. Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in Iliad is one of the earliest examples of ekphrastic poetry in literature.
Examples of Ekphrastic Poetry
In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the Romantic poet John Keats describes a piece of pottery that he finds immensely evocative. The entire poem is a description of this work of art.
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring‘d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
W.H. Auden, in his poem The Shield of Achilles talks about the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad in an ironical way. He adds irony to the poem by contrasting what Thetis expects and what Hephaestos delivers.
“She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.”
The American poet William Carlos Williams has written an ekphrastic poem in response to the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Bruegel.
“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
How to Write Ekphrastic Poetry
First, you will have to find a work of art that moves you. It acts as your influence, inspiration and the theme of the poem. Note the title of the work and its creator so that you can pay tribute in your poem.
Pay attention to the sensory details of the work such as sight, colour, sound, touch, and movement. You don’t have to know facts about the subject – your feelings, impressions, sensations and memories can be used in the poem.
Decide the format of the poem. Determine what approach you are going to take. You can talk about the feelings evoked by the art, the story behind the work of art, how that work was created, etc. You can draw inspiration from the above examples.
Write down the poem on a piece of paper and reread it. You can also revise the poem by reading it aloud. You can easily notice shortcomings in the poem by reading aloud.
“Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase” by John Keats (1795-1821) -(Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” ,By Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) – 1., (Public Domain,) via Commons Wikimedia