Ekphrastic poetry is when a poem is written in response to a piece of artwork. A writer can create works of flash fiction inspired by a drawing, or any kind of visual art or write a non-fiction reaction to a painting, photograph, or sculpture.
One consideration in writing inspired by art is the point of view. Consider all the points of view available in a response to Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney.
Humans in the Frame
If you put yourself in the place of one or both of the people in the painting, what kind of poem would you write. Would you write their individual thoughts or a report on a conversation between the two?
I love flowers not
cats he loves cats so we live
with cats and flowers
What was the artist thinking when he or she created the art is another point of view. What was the artist trying to convey? Is their message about beauty, ugliness, politics, activism, family, life, etc. What do you, the writer read into the what the artist is trying to express?
An Observer Inside or Outside
The writer can also take the point of view of a person just outside of the frame of the art or an imagined person that is there but not in the scene. This point of view is someone other than the writer, but someone not seen.
The Therapy Session
“How does it make you feel when he brings the cat to your therapy session,” I asked Mrs. Clark, looking directly at her from my comfy chair, sun streaming in through the window behind her.
I loved my therapy office. What I don’t love is cats and that she wouldn’t sit down. I worried that I would never get to the underlying issues between them. It also bothered me that Mr. Clark just sat there stroking the cat, silent. Getting him to say one word was like, well, herding cats. I could smell the flowers, her perfume, and the cat. My nose started to itch, and I thought about firing these clients, but they were my sister’s in-laws and she would be mad if I didn’t help them.
“It bothers me,” Mrs. Clark finally spoke up. She spoke quietly but we are making real progress, I thought. It was the first time, in the five sessions … it was the first time she said anything about what she wanted.
I glanced at the clock in the corner. Not enough time to explore.
“Thank you for coming.” I kicked myself for making it sound like they were doing me a favor. “We can explore this more next time. Does next Wednesday at 3 pm work for both of you?
Sentient Creatures and Inanimate Objects
The poet can also take the point of view of the cat or the proverbial fly on the wall or some other sentience creature in the painting. One way to do this is to look at the creature’s eyes and the direction they are looking. What is the cat looking at? What does the cat want in life? or in this moment?
Consider the point of view of an inanimate object (ie) “if these walls could talk.” Choose an object in the painting and think about what they would say if they could talk. What have they witnessed over the last hour or years?
Time and Motion
One can also look at the painting as a snapshot in time and consider what just happened moments before this scene or what will happen in the next moment. Perhaps a few minutes ago there was a dog in the scene and the cat jumped up on Mr. Clark’s lap to escape from the neighbor’s dog. Consider what will happen to the cat when Mr. Clark stands up, moves to do something new. Write a prediction of how time and movement will affect all the characters in the scene.
Another way to consider a painting in a poem or piece of fiction is to consider all the things that are the same. In this painting look at all the things that are white or the hands or paws or all the shadows. What do they say about the artist’s mood or mindset? What kind of mood or mindset does it put the viewer in?
All the light reflected
white cat and flowers
white phone and balcony rail
tables, decorations, painting within
a painting white with sweater lines
window frames in the distance
all reflecting light
The Writer or Poet
Of course, there is also the observer’s point of view, ultimately all of the writing and poetry is the viewpoint of the observer, even if we are imagining the scene from a different point of view. It is all about what the piece of art draws out of us and enables us to feel and notice.
An interesting exercise is to create ekphrastic poem or piece of writing in a class setting. Listen to all the different points of view and sentiments the painting evokes in the participants. I recently had this experience in Donna Baier Stein’s Ekphrasis: Using Visual Art and Photos as Prompts for Poetry and Prose. It was remarkable how different the responses were to the same piece of art. I found myself looking back at the paintings and noticing things I hadn’t noticed before hearing other writers’ expressions.
Consider what non-fiction you could write about this painting in a 140-character Twitter feed.
“A still life, motionless in white, green, and gold. Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy like statues frozen in light and paint by David Hockney.”
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Kimberly Burnham has lived in tropical Colombia; in Belgium during the Vietnam War; in Japan teaching businessmen English; in diverse international Toronto, Canada, and several places in the US. Now, she’s in Spokane, WA with her wife, Elizabeth, two sets of twins (age 11 & 14) and three dogs. Her recent book, Awakenings: Peace Dictionary, Language and the Mind, a Daily Brain Health Program includes the word for peace in hundreds of languages. Her poetry weaves through 60 + volumes of The Year of the Poet, Inspired by Gandhi, Women Building the World, A Woman’s Place in the Dictionary, Tiferet Journal and more. She is currently working on two ekphrastic writing projects. One is a novel, Art Thief Cracks Healing Code for Parkinson’s Disease and the other is a how-to non-fiction book, Using Ekphrastic Fiction Writing and Poetry to Create Interest and Promote Artists, Writers, and Poets. Both will be published by the end of 2020 http://www.NerveWhisperer.Solutions. Using Ekphrastic Fiction Writing and Poetry will be on free download on November 8, 2020 at https://www.nervewhisperer.solutions/peace-poetry/category/ekphrastic-poetry