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To kick off the 2013 Loft Anthology, we’re happy to offer some poetic resources which we hope will inspire as you delve deeper into this year’s theme of ekphrastic writing – the recreation in language of a work of art.  Submit your own timeless masterpiece to this year’s unique collection, sure to be a “grand literary storehouse”, to quote Mark Twain, meant to be left at the bedside and dipped into when you snatch a moment of reflection at end of the day.  We are excited to read and listen to what New England poets are thinking and feeling in response to wondrous visual art — a great launching pad for poetry.

“In the past forty years the production of ekphrastic poetry has become nothing less than a boom.  At least one poem about a work of visual art has come from almost every major poet of our time….The experience of the museum has informed the writing of ekphrastic poetry. Only in a museum can you have a full encounter with a painting.” James Heffernan, Museum of Words (University of Chicago Press, 1993)

Enjoy reading some famous examples of ekphrasis:

One of the most remarkable and celebrated of all contemporary ekphrastic poems is John Ashberry’s 552 line meditation “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror on a painting of the same title by Francisco Parmigianino.  “How many people came and stayed a certain time, / Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you / Like light behind windblown fog and sand, / Filtered and influenced by it, until no part / Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk/” 

Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889) prompted poems by Anne Sexton (“Starry Night”), WD Snodgrass, and a volume of poetry by Robert Fagles ( I, Vincent: Poems from the Pictures of Van Gogh). 

Click here to hear Anne Sexton read “Starry Night”.  

WD Snodgrass ‘s poem “The Red Studio” based on Matisse’s painting can be found here.

William Carlos Williams’s poemThe Hunters in the Snow” is one of the best known poems on Brueghel’s painting HuntersWilliams also wrote an ekphrastic volume of poetry, Pictures from Brueghel and other Poems (1962). 

Wallace Stevens penned The Man with the Blue Guitar” inspired by Pablo Piccasso’s The Old Guitarist.  

Sylvia Plath wrote “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” based on Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death.  In the corner of the painting, lovers are unaware of the horrors around them. Enclosed by love, they are spared death’s triumphSylvia Plath writes,

In Brueghel’s panorama of smoke and slaughter
Two people only are blind to the carrion army . . . .
Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands
Of the death’s-head shadowing their song.
These Flemish lovers flourish; not for long.

Auden’s “In the Musee des Beaux Arts” and Williams’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ are just two of many poems written about Brueghel’s well known painting of Icarus.

In the Musée des Beaux Arts” by WH Auden describes Brueghel’s painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus … how everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster… the splash, the forsaken cry, …the white legs disappearing into the green / Water” as the ploughman goes about his daily task and the expensive ship sails calmly past.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams:  Willliams’s understated and unpunctuated language brings home the insignificance of the drowning to a world concerned only with itself: “it was spring // a farmer was ploughing / his field / the whole pageantry // of the year was / awake tingling / near // the edge of the sea / concerned / with itself //   For more on this poem, read here.

Ode on a Grecian Urnby John Keats “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” 

My Last Duchessby Robert Browning based on a painting by Bronzino. The Duke displays a portrait of his late wife to visitors in this “dramatic monologue”.  As he draws back the curtains that cover her painting, he notes her flirtatious nature . . .she has a heart– how shall I say– too soon made glad // I gave her commands; then all smiles stopped together//

“On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.   Shelley penned these lines when visiting Florence and the Uffizi: “it is less the horror than the grace / Which turns the gazer’s spirit into stone”.  Shelley’s description beautifully catches the poem’s unsettling tone and appeal. The painting was actually done by an anonymous Flemish painter, and erroneously attributed to Da Vinci until the 20th century.

 Click here to read Shelley’s poem and other ekphrastic poems on poets.org  


Your responses & comments are welcome!