how to write an ekphrastic poem

Ekphrastic Poetry: How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

Ekphrasis is a literary device in which a work of art, usually visual, inspires a piece of poetry or prose. Ekphrastic poetry, then, describes a poem that finds inspiration in the creative elements of a piece of art. If you’ve recently been moved by artwork, or if you’re looking to find inspiration, you may be interested in learning how to write an ekphrastic poem.

The art of ekphrasis populates both classic and contemporary poetry. You may be familiar with William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (inspired by Bruegel’s painting), or the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, one of the more popular works of ekphrastic poetry. While classical poems find inspiration solely in visual art, this article includes a contemporary twist, as we’ll examine poetry inspired by film, dreams, and the many other ways that humans express themselves.

Before we look at different ekphrastic poem examples, let’s dive a little deeper into the form. What is ekphrastic poetry, and what is ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis Definition

The word ekphrasis comes from the Ancient Greek—its literal translation is to “speak out.” Ekphrasis was originally a rhetorical exercise in which students wrote descriptions of visual art. Over time, the word has come to describe any form of literature that finds inspiration in other forms of artwork.

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What is Ekphrastic Poetry?

If ekphrasis is the art of writing about art, then ekphrastic poetry is poetry inspired by other creative works. Art, sculpture, architecture, film, television, and even dreams are all fertile material for the ekphrastic poem.

Why should a writer employ ekphrasis, or try to write ekphrastic poetry? While it might seem counterintuitive to make art about existing art—it already exists, after all—don’t discount the importance of interpretation and description. Ekphrasis provides a challenging exercise for the writer trying to hone imagery, and it also lets writers explore the power and complexity of the artwork that moves them. We’ll see this in action through the ekphrastic poem examples we’ve included.

Ekphrastic Poem Examples

Ekphrasis is a prominent feature of classical works of literature. It shows up frequently in epic poems like The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and The Metamorphoses, and the Romantic poets also frequently wrote ekphrastic poetry, in part because they were so inspired by classical art.

Nonetheless, the ekphrastic poem examples we’re including all come from contemporary poetry, to showcase the modern possibilities of this device. Additionally, we’ve sectioned these examples based on the form of art each poem was inspired by.

Note that ekphrasis is a device, not a form, so an ekphrastic poem can take a wide variety of poetry forms, and contemporary examples are often free verse.

Ekphrastic Poetry About Art

“Her Vanity” by Marc Alan Di Martino

Retrieved from Rattle.

My mother used to sit like this before
her vanity, her shoulders bathed
in blue and pink light, her powdered skin
dredged in a cloud of talc, breathing it in.
Oblivious at seventeen, she wanted
more than anything to look her best
when Eddie Fisher offered her a Coke
in his posh Manhattan hotel suite.
I sat with her in a room off Times Square
years later, our last outing together
before the nursing homes enchained her.
She told me the story—as she said,
for the umpteenth time—of how she’d met
the singer whose career nosedived the day
Elvis broke the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel.”
They shared a Coke, the story went: his lips
kissing the weightless ‘O’ of the glass
bottle which was furtively snatched up
from where he’d set it down, forgotten it,
by her swift hand. Later, she told us
about the talcosis, how it affected
her breathing. For the rest of her life
she saw a pulmonologist. I sat there
letting her regale me with the tale
of Eddie Fisher for the umpteenth time
in a cheap hotel room off Times Square,
a crooked mirror fixed above the sink
a painting of a woman on the wall
which might have been her, poised
at her vanity, poisoning herself for love.

You can find the painting this was written about here.

This poem’s effortless beauty hinges, ironically, off the word “vanity”. Not only is the speaker’s mother sitting in front of a mirror, she is also sitting in front of the concept of vanity—“poisoning herself for love” with talc. The poem’s topic and language reflects the airy, ethereal quality of the painting, forcing the reader to consider the value of beauty.

Other ekphrastic poem examples about art include:

  • “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams (Academy of American Poets)
  • “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: Oil on Canvas: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: 1560” by Paul Tran (New England Review)
  • “Star Map With Action Figures” by Carl Philips (VQR)

Ekphrastic Poetry About Movies and TV

“Laura Palmer Graduates” by Amy Woolard

Retrieved from Poetry Foundation.

I can’t love them if their hands aren’t all tore up
From something, guitar strings, kitchen knives & grease

Burns, heaving the window ACs onto their crooked old
Sills come June. Fighting back. That porchlight’s browned

Inside with moth husks again & I can’t climb a ladder
To save my life, i.e., the world spins. Even when it’s lit,

It’s half ash. Full-drunk under a half-moon & I’m dazed
We’re all still here. Most of us, least. For the one & every

Girl gone, I sticker gold stars behind my front teeth so
I can taste just how good we were. I swear I can’t

Love them if they can’t fathom why an unlit ambulance
On a late highway means good luck. I hold my cigarette-

Smoking arm upright like I’m trying to keep blood
From rushing to a cut. What’s true is my shift’s over &

I’m here with you now & I’m wrapped up tight
On the steps like a top sheet like the morning paper

Before it’s morning. Look up & smile. What does it matter
That the stars we see are already dead. If that’s the case well

Then the people are too. Alive is a little present I
Give myself once a day. Baby, don’t think I won’t doll

Up & look myself fresh in the eyes, in the vermilion
Pincurl of my still heart & say: It’s happening again.

If you’ve watched Twin Peaks, you’ll understand some of the references in this poem, namely the last line “It’s happening again.” This poem pulls a lot from the Twin Peaks aesthetic: torn up hands and cigarettes and ambulances and porchlights and blood. But, even if you haven’t seen the TV show, you can still feel the loneliness and determination coursing through the poem, captured succinctly in the line “Alive is a little present I / Give myself once a day.”

Other ekphrastic poem examples about movies and TV include:

  • “Rude Girl is Lonely Girl!: Five Poems Inspired by Jessica Jones” by Melissa Lozada-Oliva (FreezeRay)
  • “Asami Writes to Korra for Three Years” by Natalie Wee (Wildness)
  • “The Blue Angel” by Allen Ginsberg, retrieved here.

Also, this isn’t a poem, but it is a work of ekphrastic literature about TV and movies, and also is one of my favorite short stories of all time. If you’re interested in ekphrastic prose, read “Especially Heinous” by Carmen Maria Machado in The American Reader.

Ekphrastic Poetry About Photography

“This Room” by Devon Balwit

Retrieved here, from Rattle

He asks to make love, and because he asks, I do,
though my aging desire has turned instead to

the bedside table, to the London Review
of Books, to the now sexier pursuit

of end rhymes and long walks through
leaf-blaze. I’d never thought it true

that the fathomless lust of thirty-two
could silt and still. Now, I must brew

it up if I want it. It’s not you,
I hasten to tell him, unclewing

his anxiety and letting the breeze undo
How much earnest whispering this room

has witnessed—plans to make new
life, plans to help failing parents move

to their last dependency, rue
at lost chances, the shy wooing

of new ones—this, too,
what lovers do between the sheets. The view

from the window doesn’t get old, the moon,
and morning peeking in, the bed imbued

with both solemnity and mirth, the glue
that binds us, like two ancient, tangled yews.

You can find the photo that this poem was written about here.

This poem captures the complexity of love at a certain stage, when the relationship has settled into a familiar cadence and passion has tempered to wisdom. The photo itself captures a seemingly ordinary moment—wind blowing through a window curtain. This is a great piece of ekphrasis, as the poet has turned this image into a symbol of domestic love, examining the ways that relationships evolve with age.

Other ekphrastic poem examples about photography include:

  • “Panic at John Baldessari’s Kiss” by Elena Karina Byrne (Poetry Foundation)
  • “An Ekphrastic Sonnet based off the To Pimp A Butterfly album cover where Kendrick speaks to the baby he is holding” by Myles Yates (FreezeRay)
  • “Postcard I almost send to an almost lover” by Emily Wilson (The Bohemyth)

Ekphrastic Poetry About Music

Technically, ekphrasis only describes writing inspired by visual art. But, this article is all about finding inspiration in other forms of media, so let’s look at how music has inspired contemporary poetry.

“J. S. Bach: F# Minor Toccata” by Bill Holm

Retrieved here, from Academy of American Poets

This music weeps, not for sin
but rather for the black fact
that we must all die, but not one
of us knows what comes after.
This music leaps from key to key
as if it had no clear place to arrive,
making up its life, one bar at a time.
But when you come at last to the real theme,
strict, inexorable, and bleak,
you must play it slow and sad,
with melancholy dignity, or you miss
all its grim wisdom.
In three pages, it says, the universe collapses,
and you—still only halfway home.

You can listen to Bach’s Toccata in F# Minor here.

This is, certainly, a morbid interpretation of Bach’s toccata, but close attention to the music’s minor key and melancholy reveals the sense of anguish and panic resonating through the poem. The speaker hones in on the frenetic dance of keys seeking salvation all over the piano, finding our own shared mortality reflected in F sharp.

Other ekphrastic poem examples about music include:

  • “Hammond B3 Organ Cistern” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi (The New Yorker)
  • “Cardi B Tells Me about Myself” by Eboni Hogan (Poetry Foundation)
  • “When I Die Bury Me In The 2am Music From Animal Crossing: New Horizons for Nintendo Switch” by Erich Haygun (FreezeRay)

To learn more about poetry inspired by music, start with this article on the history of jazz poetry.

Ekphrastic Poetry About Dreams

Wait a minute, dreams aren’t art. Are they?

While a dream is not a published work of visual media, a poem written about a dream can be considered a work of “notional ekphrasis.” Notional ekphrasis refers to writing about art that doesn’t yet exist. Some scholars extend the idea of notional ekphrasis to include dreams, since they are intangible, creative efforts of the brain, and our interpretation of our own dreams is itself a form of art.

As such, here are a few examples of writing inspired by dreams. While we don’t have access to the dreams themselves, pay attention to how these poems lean into the mystery of our dream worlds.

“Birds Appearing in a Dream” by Michael Collier

Retrieved from Academy of American Poets

One had feathers like a blood-streaked koi,
another a tail of color-coded wires.
One was a blackbird stretching orchid wings,
another a flicker with a wounded head.

All flew like leaves fluttering to escape,
bright, circulating in burning air,
and all returned when the air cleared.
One was a kingfisher trapped in its bower,

deep in the ground, miles from water.
Everything is real and everything isn’t.
Some had names and some didn’t.
Named and nameless shapes of birds,

at night my hand can touch your feathers
and then I wipe the vernix from your wings,
you who have made bright things from shadows,
you who have crossed the distances to roost in me.

This poem accepts the mystery of dreams with ease. It doesn’t attempt to explain the birds, just follows their flights in crystalline language. The words both clarify and obfuscate, much like dreams do, and turns of phrase like “orchid wings” and “bright things from shadows” both delight and mystify the reader. When the poem turns toward “you,” we see how the speaker is interpreting the dream, yet the poem continues to describe the dream without explanation.

Other ekphrastic poem examples about dreams include:

Additionally, at the beginning of the pandemic, many people reported having strange dreams. For more inspiration, a small archive of those dreams are recorded at the website I Dream of Covid.

How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

The following steps will help you generate delightful, immersive ekphrastic poetry.

1. How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem: Find Inspiration

If you already have a work of art you know you want to write about, skip this step.

If you want to write about a piece of media, but don’t know what to write about or where to begin, finding inspiration is the first step. But where can you find inspiration? We’ll skip the normal advice—going to museums or listing your favorite works of art—and head straight to sites where you can jumpstart your ekphrasis.

First, you might be inspired by certain literary journals. FreezeRay publishes poetry on pop culture, with an emphasis on what’s nerdy and niche. Additionally, Rattle runs a monthly ekphrastic competition that’s free to enter, using art and photography made by contemporary artists. Two winners are selected each month, and each wins $50!

Here are some sites you can navigate to find visual media that will inspire your ekphrastic poetry:

  • The Met Museum hosts an online archive of their collection.
  • So does The Frick, The Whitney, The MoMA, Getty, and The Guggenheim. Chances are, your local museum also has an online archive. Better yet, search for museums in random cities and see what they have online!
  • The National Archives keeps this photography collection.
  • Do you think space is cool? NASA’s photography collection thinks so too!
  • Issuu is a publishing platform for independent journals and magazines. Much of the work on the site is free, and you might find inspiration from indie pubs and zines. Note the sections on art, architecture, music, and movies.

Lastly, you never know what archives your local library has access to. Check to see what you might be able to find: some libraries offer free JSTOR access or have digital archives of their own.

2. How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem: Start With Imagery

Once you feel inspired by a work of art, start immersing yourself in the artwork. The key is to feel the artwork so strongly that you can relay it to the reader, and they, too, can experience the art (or movie, song, picture, etc.) the way you do.

Then, spend some time writing about your experience sitting with this artwork. It doesn’t have to be poetic: it can be a journal entry, a list, even just words jotted on the back of a napkin. Take your time with this, as it will help you stay immersed.

As you write, hone in on imagery. Be specific about what aspects of the artwork are contributing to your experience with the art.

For example, let’s say you feel moved by the swirling patterns in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Move away from simple descriptions like “swirling patterns.” Instead, choose specificity: “moonlight roils the dark night, stars like bright fish eddying the sky.” Show, don’t tell, and when in doubt, try similes and metaphors.

And remember: imagery is not just visual—there is also olfactory, tactile, auditory, gustatory, kinesthetic, and organic imagery. If you’re at a loss for details, try being synesthetic. How does your painting smell? What does your song taste like?

3. How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem: Find Threads, Themes, Core Ideas

Take a look back at what you wrote. What images stand out the most intensely? What patterns do you notice? Are there ideas, themes, threads you can draw through the notes you jotted down?

Examine what you wrote and what details seem best at immersing the reader in the artwork. These notes, of course, are not the final poem, or even the final set of images and ideas you’re working with; they’re simply a place to begin.

After you’ve taken note of what seems like the central ideas and images of the work, you can begin constructing an ekphrastic poem around those notes.

4. How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem: Stitch Imagery Together, Find Insight

Start juxtaposing your notes, list items, and images. Arrange ideas together so that, in their gestalt, you recreate both the artwork you’re describing and your experience of the art itself.

Spend time on this process, and write different drafts where you rearrange, recombine, and rewrite your ideas and images. The goal is to convey to the reader what it was really like for you to experience the art.

Throughout this process, you may come to deeper insights about your relationship to the art. Lean into those insights, and write them into the poem. Try to braid your insights with the imagery: too much of one or the other might overwhelm the reader, but walking them through your experience, moment by moment, of the artwork will help relay your experiences.

5. How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem: Compare Your Draft With the Artwork

No ekphrastic poem can fully capture the details of the art it’s inspired by. After all, ekphrastic poetry is itself an exercise in interpretation, which inevitably means certain details get excised in the writing.

Nonetheless, you want your poem to convey your experiences and reflect the beauty of the artwork itself. Compare your poem with the art. Have you captured those experiences?

This is not an easy skill to hone, which is why any of the above ekphrastic poem examples are great places to begin. How does the poem compare with the artwork it’s describing? If the artwork is elegant, the poem should be, too. If the artwork is searing, transformative, painful, lyrical, brilliant, etc., do you see that reflected in the poem? How so? Read like a poet, then apply this skill to your own writing.

6. How to Write an Ekphrastic Poem: Edit

Keep tinkering with language until your poem feels true to the artwork. Again, the goal is not for the reader to imagine the precise details of the art; poetry has nothing to do with hyperrealism here. The goal is to transmit experiences and insights, relating to the reader how you, the poet, have been moved and inspired by the art.

Get Inspired at Writers.com

Want to get feedback on your ekphrastic poetry? Writers.com can help. Take a look at our upcoming online poetry courses, where you will receive expert feedback on all the work you submit. In the meantime, the world is filled with art and inspiration, you just have to look and listen.

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