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

Michael Loveday – ‘He Said / She said’




Michael Loveday

CONGRATULATIONS to Michael Loveday on the launch of his debut pamphlet, He Said / She Said’.

Michael studied English Literature at Merton College, Oxford.  He is editor-publisher of ’14’, an illustrated magazine devoted to sonnets,
ghost-sonnets and stranger fourteen-line poems. His poetry and prose appears
in many publications. His debut pamphlet, ‘
He Said/She Said’ was published
by HappenStance in July, 2011.

He is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University.

Michael Loveday

‘He Said / She Said’
28 pages of poems

The pamphlet describes a faltering relationship between two people of different nationalities (Polish and British), and explores culture, language and otherness through that relationship. The sequence, like the title suggests, is about opposites (male / female, private / public, sameness / difference, remembering / forgetting), but the main emphasis of the pamphlet is about love and loss. And my grand theory is that maybe those two things – love and loss – aren’t opposites.

For more info on the pamphlet, and to purchase it online:

The pamphlet was launched at the latest in the series of OXFAM Poetry Readings, hosted by Todd Swift, sponsored by Kingston Writing School, at OXFAM Books and Music, Marylebone High St. The event also featured Annie Freud, Ilya Kaminsky, Todd Colby, Khin Aung Aye (James Byrne translating).

The next OXFAM reading features Denise Riley, David Lehman, and Todd Swift, launching his new collection, England Is Mine.






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