Ekphrastic Poetry Class

So in addition to demolishing a shed, I’ve been taking an ekphrastic poetry class.  Each week we would view a still life picture and write a poem about it.  We were also asked to take a photo recreating the original art.  I’m not much of a visual artist and a poor photographer, but I managed to use objects around the house to recreate my version of the original art.

Turns out to be somewhat time consuming, but I managed to get all the work done.  During the weekly class sessions we’d show our photos, read our poems and then have a “workshop” on each poem where we’d offer what we liked and suggestions for improvement.  In the end I ended up with eight poems with photos.

Some of the poems I actually like.

I’m one of my worst critics – I rarely really like anything I write and the stuff I do like … well other people don’t seem to.  Maybe that’s too harsh, but I have to say that editing your own work is difficult at best.

There is only one thing harder that editing your work is actually starting writing in the first place and avoiding that “writer’s block” thing.  I hear about it all the time and often find it hard to get started on a piece or even decide what I want to write about.  Deciding on what to write is likely one of my biggest problems in writing.

Heck, it’s likely one of the biggest problems in my life.  In my younger days I would often say, “If I knew what I wanted, I’d be dangerous.”

Now in my older years I’m likely not as dangerous, but could be writing more if I could just focus better on what I wanted to say.

That indecisive part of me is what draws me to ekphrastic poetry.  It’s poetry that is a response to viewing a picture or other visual art.  What to write about is in the picture and then becomes the starting point for writing.  The writing about the art work includes:

  1. Details of the original art
  2. Understanding the audience.  The poem and the poet must remember that the reader is viewing the art as well as reading the poem.
  3. Interpretation of the art.  What is the art and what is it’s effect on us.
  4. Focus on the art.  If the picture is about a bird, the poet should use imagines and metaphors related to birds or the actions of a bird. At the least the poem shouldn’t wander off the subject of the art.
  5. The artist should be considered.

The general process I followed in creating an ekphrastic poem was to:

  1. View the original art for a few minutes.
  2. Free write about it for 20 minutes.  This is just to get the mind focusing on my first impressions and most would not be used later.  However, there was almost always one or two good lines of this that would become the foundation for the final poem.
  3. Research the art and artist.  What I would look for here is clues to the artist’s intention with the art and how others might have interrupted it.  Sometimes simple things, like how the art was created gives me clues into responding to the work.
  4. Create a photo of my interpretation of the work.  I would collect a bunch of objects, stage them and with my iPhone, take a photo.  With a few of the photos, I’d edit them slightly, cropping, adjusting light levels and such.
  5. Write the poem.
  6. Share the poem with my classmates, note their suggestions.
  7. Edit, edit, edit.

When I look at a picture, I tend to see a story.  While the art is a picture frozen in time, my mind creates a story of either how we got to this point or what happens after this point in time.

Think about Van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night and start asking questions about it.  Under the night sky are some hills and little village.  What is the viewer looking at? What is happening in the village? Why are the stars drawn that way? Who is looking at the scene? Who lives in the village? Why is the viewer out at night viewing this scene?

The answer to these questions form the basis of the poem.

It is simple, yet complex.  One poet will see a traveler arriving in the village, while another might see a traveler leaving.  You might see a connection between the painting and Van Gogh’s life.  You might see a connection between this picture and a Shakespeare play or you might hear Don McLean’s song.

Whatever you as the poet find, becomes the dialog in your poetry about the Starry Night and what you try to communicate to your reader.  The great thing about the class is that I had three other interpretations of the same pice of art to listen to – which only deepens your understanding of what the artist, Van Gogh in this case, was trying to show in the art.

Simple, yet complex.

I know that you’d like to read one of my poems and see one of my pictures, but that will have to wait for another time as this post is already too long.

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I worked in the high tech world doing software release engineering and am now retired. Then I got prostate cancer. Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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22 Responses to Ekphrastic Poetry Class

  1. Dave says:

    You demolish sheds and write poems, Andrew; the very definition of a Renaissance man (albeit one I’ve never seen before). Your dissection of “Starry Night” reminded me of my first day in high school chemistry, when the teacher performed a simple experiment and asked us to write out a list of observations in the form of questions. I came up with dozens. As it turned out, I was lousy at chemistry but great at observations.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, that sounds like fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lakshmi Bhat says:

    This form of poetry sounds fascinating. We might come up with so many thoughts about the same thing. Waiting to read your poems.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nancy Ruegg says:

    I never heard of ekphrastic poetry either, although I did sometimes use pictures as idea-starters for poetry in my fourth grade language arts classes years ago. The process you describe sounds like fun! And I’ll bet it was interesting to hear the other poems–each with its own take on the artwork. Kudos to you, Andrew, for challenging yourself with this class!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved this post. I love reading about the process you are going through. As an artist who draws and paints, I find there are many similarities. Sometimes I know just what I want to create. But most times I have too many things that I want to do at once and believe it or not, it hinders me more than helps. I get caught up in not only ‘what’ to draw, but also what medium to use. I go back and forth and go through my reference photos and many times find myself on the photos sites looking for even more, thinking I will find a ‘better’ one. Then the time passes and it is either late or something else needs to be done and I call it a day. It is so hard. Other times, I see a photo and I know the instant I see it that I will paint it. Those are the ones that get done the most.

    And editing yourself is always tough. I don’t always know when to quit. Sometimes I walk away for a day or two and come back with ‘fresh eyes’ and see things that I may have missed. I imagine that your poetry can be like that, too.

    One thing I find that is pretty consistent: the things that I like best may not always be the most popular initially, but they are the ones that I feel the best about and still like months, and sometimes years later. I think they come out the best when we create from our hearts. Keep that in mind.

    Thanks for the post. I look forward to seeing your poems when you are ready to share them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like this kind of poetry because the process to create is clear – even though the resulting poetry might not be good. The process dose let me get to some conclusion. I’ll be sharing some poems soon.


  6. I had never heard of ekphrastic poetry – what a cool idea. I’ll look forward to seeing/reading your work. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That sounds like a good class, Andrew. And yes–waiting for a poem!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m also looking forward to your poems from the book of Matthew.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Daya Bhat says:

    Interesting post! Edit edit edit is where I lose lot of my poems. There are so many dimensions to what we want to say… narrowing it down to one sharp point helps at times.
    Looking forward to read your poems. Thank you 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • In a poem, I always try to stay with one theme. If I have two that might work, well, I write two different poems. The trick with editing is knowing when to stop – not an easy thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love stuff like this. We wrote stories about pictures in my creative writing class. So many different interpretations.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. jfwknifton says:

    Looking forward to seeing them!

    Liked by 2 people

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