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Ekphrastic Poetry

Guest Author - Jessica Smith

What is the purpose of art? In its many forms, art is a commentary, a description, a reflection of life. The sculptures of Michelangelo express the beauty of the human form. The paintings of Picasso explore the fractured prism of the inner mind. Beethoven's symphonies explore the breadth and depth of human emotion. Poetry, in all its varied forms, does the same. Indeed, poetry can also take this one step further in the form of an ekphrastic poem- a poem about art. Following are some examples of poetry focusing on art

Ode on a Grecian Urn - John Keats
Perhaps one of the most famous of ekphrastic poems is John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." What makes this poem so unique and interesting is the way in which Keats cleverly describes the scenes upon the urn. Instead of merely stating the scene depicted ("A young man sits beneath a leafy tree", for example), Keats speaks directly to the figure: "Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave / Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare". The scene, while it hasn't been spelled out, is clear in the reader's mind. Keats continues in the poem to lament the fact that the scene is merely art, not real, and that the figures within are frozen in time: "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss". Though the lovers are near, their lips will never actually touch, though they both will stay young and beautiful forever. He concludes: "When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain." While art may be eternal, life itself is not, and must eventually wither and fade.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - William Carlos Williams
This well-known poem concerns itself with a painting of the same name by Pieter Brueghel. Instead of directly addressing the art piece, as Keats does, Williams seems to mirror it. Brueghel painted a fantastic and colorful landscape of the seaside in springtime, featuring ploughing, shepherding, fishing, and a shining city. In the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, the legs of Icarus are just barely noticeable disappearing into the sea. While normally the myth of Icarus and the melting wings is told dramatically, with the blazing sun and rush of falling wind, the painting instead emphasizes how the daily life of the people carries on. Equally, Williams' poem supports the painting in brief descriptive bursts: "it was spring" and "a farmer was ploughing". The poem, also, seems unconcerned by Icarus' plight: "there was a splash / quite unnoticed / this was / Icarus drowning". Instead of launching into a tirade, or bemoaning the poor young man's fate, Williams merely states the fact, his poem focusing instead on the everyday scenes carried out in the landscape. In this case, the ekphrastic poem supplements and builds upon the themes of the original art piece.

War Photograph - Kate Daniels
Modern poetry has found plenty of uses for the ekphrastic form. Daniels uses the famous photograph, taken by Nick Ut during the Vietnam War, of a girl running naked and screaming from napalm bombs. Daniels has chosen a different tactic than Keats and Williams. First, she offers a brief introductory description of the photo, which is famous enough for most readers to instantly recognize: "A naked child is running / along the path toward us". The next verse widens its focus, stretching out from the single moment of the photo, into the past, giving a back story to the girl's momentum: "She is running from the smoke / and the soldiers, from the bodies". This gives the image context; the reader imagines the outer scene, the chaos of war which brought about this moment. Then Daniels suddenly turns the poem's focus onto the viewer of the photograph ("She is running-my god-to us"). Now we consider the people who are far away, looking at the photo, and the feelings and conflicts it creates. Daniels reminds us that a moment is just that- a moment- and that life continues on ("She keeps on running, you know, / after the shutter of the camera / clicks."). While the photo is a devastatingly moving piece of art, the poem serves not only to support it but also to expand it. Daniels widens the reader's focus to include the girl before and after, the viewers, the two countries, and the whole world (one could also consider drawing back further to examine oneself- the reader of the poem). Her poem adds much to the original artwork.

Ekphrastic poems describe, explore, support, expand, peruse and ponder all different types of art in just as many different ways. They are often an important resource, and can be used as an essential guide to understanding other works of art more clearly.
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Ode on a Grecian Urn
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
War Photograph
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jessica Smith. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jessica Smith. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Karena Andrusyshyn for details.

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