Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing Wednesdays: Ekphrasis

Perhaps you have heard of or have even read an ekphrastic poem, or a poem that describes a work of art. "Ekphrastic" is the adjectival form of the Greek work "ekphrasis," which means simply "a vivid description of a thing" (

One of the earliest examples of ekphrasis can be found in the 18th book of The Iliad when Homer describes the creation of Achilles' shield by the blacksmith god Hephaestus:

Two cities radiant on the shield appear,
The image one of peace, and one of war.
Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight,
And solemn dance, and hymeneal rite;
Along the street the new-made brides are led,
With torches flaming, to the nuptial bed:
The youthful dancers in a circle bound
To the soft flute, and cithern’s silver sound:
Through the fair streets the matrons in a row
Stand in their porches, and enjoy the show. (Homer)

Click here to read a list of ten of the best examples of ekphrasis.

Ekphrastic poems are unique in that readers can connect with the content both on the page and by viewing the image upon which the poem is based.

The title work from Natasha Trethewey's collection Bellocq's Ophelia is a beautiful example of ekphrasis:

In Millais’s painting, Ophelia dies faceup,
eyes and mouth open as if caught in the gasp
of her last word or breath, flowers and reeds
growing out of the pond, floating on the surface
around her. The young woman who posed
lay in a bath for hours, shivering,
catching cold, perhaps imagining fish
tangling in her hair or nibbling a dark mole
raised upon her white skin. Ophelia’s final gaze
aims skyward, her palms curling open
as if she’s just said, Take me.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

As you can see from the above excerpt, ekphrastic poetry is basically looking at an image and describing it in a vivid, creative way. 

When writing an ekphrastic poem, it is okay to place thoughts and feelings into the mind of the painting's subject. Descriptions of such thoughts and feelings greatly enhance any ekphrastic poem, as when Trethewey writes ". . . perhaps imagining fish/ tangling in her hair or nibbling a dark mole/ raised upon her white skin . . ."

Ekphrastic poems are fun to write because you can choose any work of art and create your own story. If you enjoy writing poetry, trying your hand at ekphrasitic writing could be a fun exercise and a great learning experience.

Information Source
"Bellocq" excerpt:
Image Source

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