talking pictures

This week I’ve been thinking about poetry inspired by paintings, for two reasons.

1 – because I’ve been reading Nancy Gaffield’s amazing book of poems inspired by Hiroshige’s 19th Japanese woodcuts, Tokaido Road.

2 – because we had a class on Thursday with James Byrne (poet and editor of the Wolf magazine) on this topic, “ekphrastic” literature – written texts which repond to art (music, photos, movies, sculpture, paintings etc).

So here are some verbal doodles on this topic:

(a) writing a poem (I’ll say poem, but you can substitute prose here for the rest of this) which only describes the picture (or movie / sculpture / photo etc) faithfully is dead boring for the audience or reader.

(b) but! writing a poem which “only describes the picture faithfully” is fundamentally impossible. you have to be selective – you can’t capture everything that’s there, plus the subjective eye naturally interprets and has biases.

(c) It is however always fundamentally possible to remain dead boring even when being selective. A good poem responding to visual art has to be descriptive and then do something more. it has to go somewhere inspired, or set up an interesting relationship with the painting. otherwise people might just as well enjoy the artwork, there’s no need for the poem.

(d) the word “correspondence” seems relevant. the poem shouldn’t correspond to the artwork it’s describing (shouldn’t be its verbal equivalent). it should correspond with it (should be in some kind of written dialogue with it).

(e) sometimes what’s left out, what doesn’t get transferred from the artwork into the poem, can be the most interesting part of the poem.

(f) but how authentic does the description have to be, I wonder? is it ok to deliberately overlook something visually important? is it ok to invent things?

Here are some of the things we might consider when selecting material in response to a piece of visual artwork.

  • Would you want to say something that’s factually inaccurate – Look at the elephant in that Rothko abstract! That’s artistically insincere, surely?

(and yet, with a widely recognisable painting, the Mona Lisa say, one that doesn’t require reference to the picture for most readers, a poem that contains a “lie” might become the most important part of the poem, the key to making it work as a poem).

  • What about something that’s only arguably inaccurate – “Look at the pink elephant in the painting!”

(there really is an elephant, except the painter painted one that’s really white or pinky-white, not pink). Is that insincere or are we allowed some creative licence? (Maybe, because of subjectivity, there has to be some leeway. maybe the poet is colour blind. maybe the rest of us are colour blind). how does it matter to authenticity if two writers decide to interpret the same pink elephant differently? “Look at the embarrassed pink elephant!” vs. “Look at the nervous pink elephant!”

  • Do you want to make the picture come alive in words in a way that’s impossible in paintings?

See how the pink elephant’s legs move awkwardly as it runs!”
Is that somehow inauthentic if it’s a poem about a painting?

  • Do you want to imagine a backstory or wider social context?

the poor pink elephant, that wild species so endangered now because of pink elephant hunting, that its beautiful ivory is even more valuable”

  • Do you want to imagine an object or something that’s just off the edge of the picture, outside its frame?

Look! here comes the cash-strapped game hunter arriving with his pink elephant trap.

Look at the elephant calf, lagging behind, about to be caught!”

  • Or maybe write about something within the frame but not visible without a 360 degree view – i.e. there are several elephants facing away from the viewer, but you still want to say “Look at the elephant which has no tusks!”

Is that inauthentic?

There might be examples of greater or lesser authenticity: you might describe the elephant’s face that’s not visible and give a description of its trunk – we know it’s got to be there, but it’s not actually visible in the painting because of the angle. Is that somehow inauthentic too?

  • Lastly what about the writer themselves – how much of the “I” that’s looking and writing do you choose to put into the poem, explicitly? (at some level, even implicitly, the observing “eye” is always there)

How heavily do you feed in your personal reactions and beliefs about the artwork?

And / or do you springboard into a connected personal story, or reflection?

Do you use a (character/persona) “I” voice that’s commenting in a way that’s slightly different from your own personal beliefs?

Mike Loveday


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Alison Gibb
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 19:27:51

    Hi mike, I was wondering if it was a question, of what is poetry and what part can “ekphrastic” poetry play in it?

    I’m not sure that I’m sold on poetry writing techniques automatically equaling poetry. How about you?

    I did the reading for the lecture and was interested in explanation given in the Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art article when it refers to; ‘Homer’s blow-by-blow description in the Illiad, as ‘ a vivid description of a thing.’ It got me thinking. Is Homer’s method of describing or depicting all things Greek; including domestic life, clothing, animals and experiences of battles, more in keeping with collage techniques and experimental poetry. Poetry, which tends to cause clashes, overlaps and abstractions in meanings and a juxtaposition of ideas within texts, often producing vivid and multiple description.

    I’m not so sure that just describing an image is enough. Afterall, the art in a painting isn’t in the object but in the experience of the artwork by a viewer. I don’t think writing a yellow, circled shaped canvas would ever convey the experience of art, in viewing an Elsworth Kelly painting. Which when viewed live in a gallery is undeniably an experience of or an encounter with art. Though I’m guessing describing an artwork or image in a poem, is a fairly very basic execution of “ekphrastic” poetry writing.

    I do think that a well-known painting or work of art can be referenced though “ekphrastic” techniques to be included in the process of writing a poem. Maybe it needs to be well-known for the referencing to work? – I’m not sure – anyone?

    Lastly, (I would be curious to know if this was covered in the lecture or if any one has any thoughts on this)- Brancusi’s Golden Bird poem, would it still be considered “ekphrastic” poetry or as worthy if the footnotes weren’t visible? Or do the footnotes reinforce its status? Put another way, is modern “ekphrastic poetry ” a little bit preoccupied with it own self-importance? – That said, I really do like the poem.

    Any thoughts Anyone? – Alison


    • Mike
      Nov 25, 2011 @ 19:43:58

      I agree with your question asking “what is poetry?”, and hope it’s implied in (a) and (c) above that I’d say “poetry” has to be taking the top of one’s head off, or putting language into orbit (or another of those various attempts by poets to pin words onto something magical or occult). poetry that involves clashes, overlaps, multiple descriptions I like. but abstractions are less my cup of tea. one of my problems with the Mina Loy poem was that I felt the language was trying so hard to conjure something from an artwork that’s quite cold that it ended up cerebral and full of abstractions, rather than sensations, and it felt like the language was trying too hard to sound important. I hadn’t thought about the footnotes before, but you’re right to highlight them, there’s something a bit “Wasteland” about them being included, isn’t there. (and yet, ambition aside, it can be quite a playful effect if done well).

      It’s interesting that originally “ekphrastic” didn’t refer to describing an artwork or cultural object, but could mean “speaking out” about any kind of object, just capturing it in words.
      overall, I’d agree that even capturing an object in words isn’t enough. we have to be taken elsewhere, or connected to somewhere / something else, as part of the experience of reading the poem. otherwise, it risks being the mere equivalent of explanatory subtitles to an image which is already perfectly itself on its own.


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