Tags: homer | keats | bruegel | browning

Ekphrastic Poetry

Photograph by De Witt Ward, Peter A. Juley & Sons, printer. Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

By    |   Friday, 27 March 2020 06:41 AM

The term ekphrastic (also spelled ecphrastic) originates from a Greek expression for description because poets in ancient Greece sought to transform the visual into the verbal by addressing a painting, drawing, or sculpture in words. The form has been favored by many poets throughout history. It is believed that Homer was the first because he used it to describe the embossed scenes on the shield of Achilles (an imaginary work of art) in "The Iliad." Ekphrastic poetry entered the English language in the early 18th century and has never gone out of style, especially with writers who feel a deep emotional or spiritual connection to a visual work of art. Keats is famous for "Ode to a Grecian Urn," W.H. Auden and others wrote in response to artist Bruegel’s dramatic "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," Robert Browning penned "My Last Duchess." The list goes on and on from poems describing, embellishing, or interpreting everything from the lush paintings of Van Gogh to the austere work of Edward Hopper.

Most poets today have moved beyond description to reflect deeper meanings they see in art that moves them to react personally to it. Some writers use free verse, but the majority of ekphrastic poetry remains largely constructed of meter and rhyme. For a writer interested in both the visual arts and poetry, this unique form is unmatchable for artistic and poetic expression combined into one. I have written many poems to art in this manner because paintings and sculpture are my passion—especially sculpture—so the form gives me opportunity to express that passion for the art through another passion: poetry.

19th-20th century master sculptor Daniel Chester French is widely known for national monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., but my favorite of his work is a female nude he carved just for himself titled “Andromeda.” Following is an ekphrastic poem I wrote about this magnificent work that appeared (along with the photo) on a poster for an aesthetic publication many years ago. It is traditional in form but complex in content, for I took the myth and focused on certain parts of it not only to insert my own philosophical take on its meaning but also to allude to other myths (and mythological characters) closely related to this one in order to offer a greater treasure trove in the world of mythology in general. In addition, I broadened the rhyming pattern from a normally tight formation to one connecting the four stanzas in an echoing manner that reverberates more subtly throughout the poem.

Andromeda Unchained

Stand free, maiden

Daughter of Cepheus

Who wrongly sacrificed

You to the sea

Drop your chains

Raise your eyes

And on my wing-ed sandals

(gift of the Hyperboreans

Those happy people at the back

Of the North Wind who sound such revelry).

Princess of Ethiopia

Haste! Fly away with me!

Triumphantly but heavy laden

I am Perseus

Who slew this Gorgon

(Zeus is father to me, come in golden rain to my mother Danae).

Medusa’s head is here encased—

Polydectes wished it slain—

My wedding offering in the sack

For that man and my mother, his bride to be

But here o’er Ethiopia

You on this rock I see.

Verily, your mother’s not mistaken

Daughters of Nereus,

Who shine their radiance

On that god of the sea,

Can never claim

Your beauty does not vie. . .

Cassiopeia’s pride is not a sin;

The oracle was wrong not she. . .

(Nor does beauty or pride ever lack

As virtue to a saner world). Thankfully

I passed by Ethiopia

This wrong to remedy

Come with me to glorious haven

You are beauteous

Who proud of being

Shall you ever be

Drop your chains

Raise your eyes

And on my wing-ed sandals

Escape the serpent of the deep

(The thought that chained you was as black

To name as sin pride in any beauty!)

The sin is Ethiopia’s

My love, be proud, stand free

Aside from lauding a splendid work of art and its obvious meaning as mentioned above, my ultimate purpose in writing this poem was to encourage individuals to enjoy Greek myths overall, using this one because it is so dramatic and romantic. At the same time, I was hoping it might inspire exploration into this particular myth because it is so full of history and inherently value-filled meanings. I also wanted to insert some esoteric material (e.g., the Hyperboreans) to encourage a probe into history and learn something new and fascinating. Next, I wanted to emphasize the power of love and beauty to enrich each of our own personal lives, and lastly, I wanted to drive home the idea that freedom, pride, and independence are values to be sought and achieved regardless of what the rest of the world may think or believe.

So welcome to ekphrastic poetry. Another form of art to explore, to ponder, and (perhaps) to play with. Here’s a simple way to try it out: When responding strongly to a painting or sculpture, jot down your feelings as they bubble up. Then write out why you are feeling what you’re feeling by describing aspects of the artwork inspiring your reactions. Next put your two sets of notes into a prose setting like a short story. Finally re-arrange your story into a rhythm and rhyme presentation. Eureka! You have just written an ekphrastic poem.

Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.

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Welcome to ekphrastic poetry. Another form of art to explore, to ponder, and (perhaps) to play with.
homer, keats, bruegel, browning
Friday, 27 March 2020 06:41 AM
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