Planting Zone: guidelines for poem-culture enthusiasts –
Ekphrasis: Creative Writing Via Visual Arts
By Nancy Carroll
It happens that very often that my writing with pen
is interrupted by my writing with brush,
but I think of both as writing.
– Kenneth Patchen, on his book, Painted Poems
"Afternoon Collage, 2011" Nancy Carroll. Photo collage of "Head with Open Eyes" 1922-24, by Alexel Jawiensky; AND Helen Frankenthaler’s 1968 "Adriatic".
"A Quick Take" Nancy Carroll. After "Afternoon Collage, 2011" also by Nancy Carroll.
Graphic description — “ekphrasis” is a daunting Greek word that simply tags a poem as having been inspired by a work of art. One of the earliest known examples of ekphrasis is Homer’s poem about Achilles’ shield in the Illiad – and the relationship between art and poetry begins, and is later continued by Virgil and Dante. Also defined by James Heffernan in Museum of Words as “a verbal representation of a visual representation,” as a collaborative process between poet/artist/subject, ekphrasis not only provokes new works of art, but the very process is considered an art unto itself.
Speaking out — as a writer who relishes this process, I find that visual art offers me immediate access to imagery, texture, and story. The mere engagement with one photograph or painting can connect me to landscapes or stories I would have never discovered within the confines of my own backyard. “Between Shifts” is a short poem I conceived from Edward Hopper’s 1927 oil painting entitled Automat:
"Between Shifts" (2009) Nancy Carroll. Ekphrasis.
Dramatic description — the young woman drinking her coffee alone in a New York City automat at night suggests that this portrait is more than just a quick cup of coffee. Hopper details her situation as she stares down into her coffee cup. It is dark outside and a radiator is painted to her right. Her composed, constrained posture evokes tensions (“she is folded laundry”) that I interpret as both financial and relational, giving me my final line, “and only the coffee cup is waterfall.” This painting speaks of New York, the Depression and the quiet desperate moments that could only belong to this young woman as she is illuminated beneath the green glow of a winter city night. Hopper provides succulent visual images that easily translate into verbal images, which provides new narrative to the original painting.
Synergy — Sharon Dolin’s 2003 poetry collection, Serious Pink, focuses on the work of three abstract painters. She uses their engagements with color for poetic discoveries. As jazz is to music, so is abstraction to art. In her poem “Ochre,” she addresses Richard Diebenkorn’s color movements by inviting us to:
"Ochre" (2003) Sharon Dolin.
Just as with jazz, abstraction insists on movements that are non-linear. This unconfined visual patterning frees the poet to write as Dolin writes just before the previous lines:
"Ochre" continued. Sharon Dolin. 2003.
Dolin interprets the painter’s musical position between gradations of color and discovers landscape, her intrinsic response to his extrinsic expression. She challenges us to engage emotionally, rather than remaining outside as a passive observer. By asking us to embrace “ochre,” a color used by artists and house painters, we recognize the “shapes” that transport us into a larger experiential movement of language and sound.
Telling a story — in Terri Witek’s 2006 collection, Carnal World, the poet includes poems about the works of Picasso, Monet, Titian, and Cotan, as well as addressing John Singer Sargent’s portraiture of the Sitwell family (circa 1900). Witek gives us many private moments between canvas and paint layers—and as in her poem, “Bonnard on Painting Marthe Bathing,” we observe an artist embroiled beyond his art and becoming transparent with one simple monologue:
"Bonnard on Painting Marthe Bathing". Terri Witek. 2006.
Witek’s lyric moment extrapolates from Bonnard’s image, music and composition what possibilities lie beneath the surface—uncovering, and exposing a deteriorating marriage.
With Bonnard as the poem’s speaker, the idea of “the male gaze” is shifted from solely an artistic abstract avenue that observes female form into an emotional concrete purpose or confession. And what still fascinates me is how (as illustrated with this poem) Witek extends Bonnard’s original visual project into an ekphrastic collaborative gesture that unites arts/artists through time and space. A writer can easily write a poem about any art from any historical period or any geographical place.
Applications of Whimsy – ekphrasis also is useful for teaching creative writing to all age groups. From grade school to college, asking students to write their own stories or ideas about art helps develop language skills in an open playing field. There are no rules, except to use elements of poetry as metaphor, diction, syntax, narrative, line logic, point of view and location.
Barbara Flug-Colin teaches a poetry-writing program at a New York elementary/high school for physically challenged students. In her article, “The Train at the Chimney: Teaching Writing by Discovering Art,” Colin discusses how the artistic process leads to the ekphrastic process, “I’ve discovered the value of discovery. Matisse said his process was one of ‘form filtered to its essential.’ I have created a class exercise call ‘Matisse Mysteries” to point out this process students must find Matisse hidden in his paintings. . . discovering this process helps us with our processes.” Colin further elaborates with the illustrative example of a fifth-grader named Lyle, who wrote funny, long-winded poems for two years, and then spontaneously wrote the following while looking at a postcard of Matisse’s The Yellow Hat:
"She is a housewife" by fifth-grader, Lyle, after "The Yellow Hat" by Henri Matisse.
Creative Process — once again, ekphrasis proves an important collaborative project that provides students a viable way to learn to process what is purely visual into their own written artistic expressions. These skills will serve them well, no matter where they are in their educational development.
Artistic media — fascinating, exhilarating, provoking are all words that describe how ekphrasis continues to drive me as a poet. No matter what other projects interest me, ekphrasis remains a vital gateway for discovery, invention, and awe.
Nancy Carroll’s poetry has been published in Borderlands: A Texas Poetry Review and Prime Decimal Magazine. She received her M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge, and is a member of the L.A. based writers’ consortium, Southland Poets & Writers.