Ekphra… WHAT?!?!?

Writing an ekphrastic poem can be a great exercise to get your creative juices flowing. “A what poem?” you ask.


“Ekphra… WHAT?!?!?” Good question.

Ekphrasis is a term that generally refers to a rhetorical device that attempts to create a piece of art that relates to another piece of art in another medium. A common form of ekphrasis is a piece of writing (often a poem) which is inspired by/attempts to relate with a visual medium such as painting.

Some well known poems are actually a form of ekphrasis. For example, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is an ekphrastic poem, as is Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Keats addressed his poem to an urn he created in his mind, while Auden was writing in response to a painting called “The Fall of Icarus.” Both poems meditate on the relationship between life and art.

“All poems for paintings can be read as commentaries upon the nature of the encounter between the verbal and the visual.” Stephen Cheeke, author of Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis

This statement shows one of the reasons that ekphrastic poetry can be so much fun to write: it allows you to respond to something that moves you or makes you think while simultaneously engaging in a time-honored metaphor.

In his book, Stephen Cheeke says that the word “ekphrasis” is derived from the Greek word for “out” and a Greek word which means “to tell or speak.” This makes sense, because ekphrasis is a kind of speaking which comes out of a visual art object.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, writing an ekphrastic poem can be a great writing exercise. Usually, the aim isn’t to describe a painting so much as it is to capture a mood or ponder a truth which the art also tells. Some ekphrastic poems take one of the figures in a painting as the speaker. (An example of this would be “Eurydice to Orpheus” by Robert Browning.)

Finally, to spark your creative juices, here’s an ekphrastic poem which I wrote last year. It’s inspired by this painting by Rothko:

Painting by Rothko with yellow rectangle at top of canvas and red-orange rectangle at the lower part

My poetry professor had everyone in the class write a poem based on this painting.

Rothko’s Rectangles
Flame-bright blocks of color
confined within boundaries,
vermilion and crimson
burning through their fixed places,
blurring their edges with
the shimmer of heat haze.
See the artist’s tortured rectangles
(the tension either conflict
or curbed desire) swallowed by
the larger canvas-crisp border
of the painting, of the world.
See how they smolder,
long after they have lost
the last chance
of escape, long after
the paint has dried and the artist
relinquished the brush.

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4 thoughts on “Ekphra… WHAT?!?!?

  1. Wow, there’s a word for this?? I’ve always quoted/alluded/referred to/been inspired by Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” I think I will definitely get around to doing this, but with a piece of music.

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