EKPHRASTIC POETRY Poems on Paintings
Ekphrasis Ekphrasis is the graphic and rhetorical description of a visual work of art. Ekphrastic poetry is poetry that focuses on works of art to “to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects.” (“Ekphrasis,” Poets.Org) “Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art” from Poets.Org: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5918 Wikipedia article on Ekphrasis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekphrasis
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, c.1500, Flanders,, the Musée de Cluny, Paris
Jorie Graham, "The Lady and the Unicornand Other Tapestries" If I have a faith it is something like this: this ordering of imageswithin an atmosphere that will receive them, hold them in solution, unsolved.It is this: that the quailover the snowon our back field run free and clocklike, briefly safe.That they rise up in gusts, stiff and atemporal, the moment a game they enter,held in place, as prey,by goodness,by their role in the design. And when they rise, straight up,to this or that limb in the snowfat fir, they seem -- because the body dropsso far below its wings --to also fall,
like our best lies that make what's absolutely volatilelook like it's weighted down -- our whitest lie, the beautiful . . . . They rise up inthe falling snowand yet to see them is to seetheir fallenness . . . . And when, each to their limb they go,their faces taupe and indigo and peeking gently out from under hats like threadand needle starting topull in the simplefear, it is an ancient tree their eager eyes map out --playful and vengeful and symmetry-bound: where out of love the quail are woveninto tapestries, and , stuffedwith cardamon and pine-nutsand a sprig of thyme.
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (c.1503) Oil on panel, approximately 30 inches x 21 inches. Louvre, Paris.
John Stone, “Three for Mona Lisa” 1 It is not what she didat 10 o'clocklast evening accounts for the smile. It isthat she plansto do it again tonight. 2 Only the mouthall those yearsever letting on. 3 It's not the mouthexactly it's not the eyesexactly either it's not evenexactly a smile But, whatever,I second the motion.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Two Monkeys (1562) Oil on canvas, approximately 8 inches x 9 inches. Dahlem Museum, Berlin.
Wislawa Szymborska “Two Monkeys by Brueghel” (trans. from the Polish by Magnus Kryski) I keep dreaming of my graduation exam:in a window sit two chained monkeys,beyond the window floats the sky,and the sea splashes. I am taking an exam on the history of mankind:I stammer and flounder. One monkey, eyes fixed upon me, listens ironically,the other seems to be dozing--and when silence follows a question,he prompts mewith a soft jingling of the chain.
Pieter Brueghel, The Fall of Icarus, 1558 Oil-tempera, 29 inches x 44 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns awayQuite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman mayHave heard the splash, the forsaken cry,But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shoneAs it had to on the white legs disappearing into the greenWater, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seenSomething amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. Icarus
W.H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts”1938 About suffering they were never wrong,The old Masters: how well they understoodIts human position: how it takes placeWhile someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waitingFor the miraculous birth, there always must beChildren who did not specially want it to happen, skatingOn a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgotThat even the dreadful martyrdom must run its courseAnyhow in a corner, some untidy spotWhere the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horseScratches its innocent behind on a tree.
PieterBrueghel, Kermesse (1567-8) Oil on canvas, approximately 45”x64.5”. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
William Carlos Williams, “The Dance” In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess,the dancers go round, they go round andaround, the squeal and the blare and thetweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddlestipping their bellies (round as the thick-sided glasses whose wash they impound)their hips and their bellies off balanceto turn them. Kicking and rollingabout the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, thoseshanks must be sound to bear up under suchrollicking measures, prance as they dancein Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess.
Titian, Venus and the Lute-Player (1560-65) Oil on canvas, 65 “ x 82.5 “ Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Paul Engle, “Venus and the Lute Player” Far in the background a blue mountain waitsTo echo back the songThe note-necked swan, while it reverberates,Paddles the tune along. The player is a young man richly dressed.His hand is never mute.But quick in motion as if it caressedBoth lady and the lute. Nude as the sunlit air the lady rests.She does not listen with her dainty ear,But trembles at the love song as her breastsTurn pink to hear. She does not rise up at his voice's fall,But takes that music in,By pointed leg and searching hand, with allHer naked skin. Out of that scene, far off, her hot eyes fall,Hoping they will take inThe nearing lover, whom she can give allHer naked skin.
Charles I, with his second son, James, Duke of York, in 1647Painted by Peter Lely [Lilly] (1618–1680).
Richard Lovelace, “To my Worthy Friend Mr. Peter Lilly :on that excellent Picture of his Majesty, andthe Duke Of Yorke, drawne by him atHampton-Court.”c.1648 SEE ! what a clouded Majesty ! and eyes Whose glory through their mist doth brighter rise ! See ! what an humble bravery doth shine, And griefe triumphant breaking through each line How it commands the face ! so sweet a scorneNever did happy miseryadorne ! So sacred a contempt, that others show To this, (oth' height of all the wheele) below ; That mightiest Monarchs by this shaded bookeMay coppy out their proudest, richest looke. Whilst the true Eaglet this quick luster spies, And by his Sun's enlightens his owne eyes ; He cares his cares, his burthen feeles, then streightJoyes that so lightly he can beare such weight ; Whilst either eithers passion doth borrow, And both doe grieve the same victorious sorrow.
These, my best Lilly with so bold a spirit And soft a grace, as if thou didst inherit For that time all their greatnesse, and didst draw With those brave eyes your Royal Sitters saw. Not as of old, when a rough hand did speake A strong Aspect, and a faire face, a weake ; When only a black beard cried Villaine, and By Hieroglyphicks we could understand ; When Chrystall typified in a white spot, And the bright Ruby was but one red blot ; Thou dost the things Orientally the same Not only paintst its colour, but its Flame :Thou sorrow canst designe without a teare, And with the Man his very Hope or Feare ;So that th' amazed world shall henceforth finde None but my Lilly ever drew a Minde.
William Blake, “The Clod and the Pebble” "Love seeketh not Itself to please,"Nor for itself hath any care,"But for another gives its ease,"And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair." So sang little Clod of ClayTrodden with the cattle's feetBut a Pebble of the brookWarbled out these metres meet: "Love seeketh only Self to please,"To bind another to Its delight,"Joys in another's loss of ease,"And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite." William Blake(1757-1827),Songs of Experience1789 Blake illustrated and engraved his own works
Kitagawa Utamaro, Girl Powdering Her Neck MuseeGuimet, Paris. c. 1790
The light is the insidesheen of an oyster shell,sponged with talc and vapor,moisture from a bath. A pair of slippersare placed outsidethe rice-paper doors.She kneels at a low tablein the room,her legs folded beneath heras she sits on a buckwheat pillow. Her hair is blackwith hints of red,the color of seaweedspread over rocks. Morning begins the ritualwheel of the body,the application of translucent skins.She practices pleasure:the pressure of three fingertipsapplying powder.Fingerprints of pollensome other hand will trace. The peach-dyed kimonopatterned with maple leavesdrifting across the silk, falls from right to leftin a diagonal, revealingthe nape of her neckand the curve of a shoulderlike the slope of a hillset deep in snow in a countryof huge white solemn birds.Her face appears in the mirror,a reflection in a winter pond,rising to meet itself. She dips a corner of her sleevelike a brush into waterto wipe the mirror;she is about to paint herself.The eyes narrowin a moment of self-scrutiny.The mouth partsas if desiring to disturbthe placid plum face;break the symmetry of silence.But the berry-stained lips,stenciled into the mask of beauty,do not speak. Two chrysanthemumstouch in the middle of the lakeand drift apart. Cathy Song, “Girl Powdering Her Neck” from a ukiyo-e print by Utamaro 1983
J. M. W. Turner, British, 1775-1851 Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon Coming On). Oil on canvas (35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in.) , 1840
David Wright“Before You Read the Plaque About Turner's Slave Ship" See the bare canvas. A pure white bone that splits the sky's weak, warm skin of colors. What will be left on the ocean floor, What will be left under the swells, What will be left is unspeakable and vivid and not the vicious beauty of cracking masts against the atmosphere writing lines of blood. Not the blended light, or the curious gulls. Not the market's fanacious hope. Not the gods' desperation to include us in this disaster, without our will. But the bare, bright, smoothed bones of many, many hands, so cold, down where the master could not imagine, could not light the darkest depths.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning“Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave”1886 They say Ideal Beauty cannot enterThe house of anguish. On the threshold standsAn alien image with enshackled hands,Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her(That passionless perfection which he lent herShadowed not darkened where the sill expands)To so confront man’s crimes in different landsWith man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the center,Art’s fiery finger! and break up ere longThe serfdom of this world! appeal, fair stone,From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrong!Catch up in the divine face, not aloneEast griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,By thunders of white silence, overthrown. Hiram Powers, The Greek Slave, 1843, Yale University Art Gallery
Paul Cezanne, L'Estaque (1883-85) Oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Allen Ginsberg“Cezanne’s Ports”1950 In the foreground we see time and lifeswept in a racetoward the left hand side of the picturewhere shore meets shore. But that meeting placeisn't represented;it doesn't occur on the canvas. For the other side of the bayis Heaven and Eternity,with a bleak white haze over its mountains. And the immense water of L'Estaque is a go-betweenfor minute rowboats.
Anne Sexton, “The Starry Night,” 1961 The town does not existexcept where one black-haired tree slipsup like a drowned woman into the hot sky.The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.Oh starry starry night! This is howI want to die. It moves. They are all alive.Even the moon bulges in its orange ironsto push children, like a god, from its eye.The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.Oh starry starry night! This is howI want to die: into that rushing beast of the night,sucked up by that great dragon, to splitfrom my life with no flag,no belly,no cry.
Paul Gauguin,The Loss of Virginity. 1890-91, Oil on canvas90 x 130 cm (35 x 50 3/4 in), The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia
It is our eyes that losetheir innocence, ravished bythese purples and greens as we gazeat the woman lying there,her ankles pressed together,like Holbein's christ.She is perfectly immobile,as if the fox signifying lustwere hardly there, nor the birdsettled on her open hand.Even the procession that windsits slow way towards heris simply a curve of darknessin the distance. In this realmof pure color it is the intense bluesof the water that matter,the soft shapes of the rocks,more voluptuous than any woman.And she becomes a flat plane of whitein the foreground, the tropical colorof sand after the sea has receded. Linda Pastan,“In the Realm of Pure Color"after Gauguin's The Loss of Virginity1991
Adrienne Rich, “Mourning Picture”1965 They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rockerout under the lilac bush,and my father and mother darkly sit there, in black clothes.Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill,my doll lies in her wicker pramgazing at western Massachusetts.This was our world.I could remake each shaft of grassfeeling its rasp on my fingers,draw out the map of every lilac leafor the net of veins on my father's grief-tranced hand. Out of my head, half-bursting,still filling, the dream condenses--shadows, crystals, ceilings, meadows, globes of dew.Under the dull green of the lilacs, out in the lightcarving each spoke of the pram, the turned porch-pillars,under high early-summer clouds,I am Effie, visible and invisible,remembering and remembered.
Edvard Munch, Girls on the Jetty (c. 1899) Oil on canvas, approximately 53.5 inches x 49.5 inches. Nasjonalgalleriat, Oslo.
Derek Mahon, “Girls on the Bridge,” 1982 Audible trout,Notional midges. Beds,Lamplight and crisp linen waitIn the house there for the sedateLimbs and averted headsOf the girls out Late on the bridge.The dusty road that slopesPast is perhaps the high road south,A symbol of world-wondering youth,Of adolescent hopesAnd privileges; But stops to findThe girls content to gazeAt the unplumbed, reflective lake,Their plangent conversational quackExpressive of calm daysAnd peace of mind. Grave daughtersOf time, you lightly tossYour hair as the long shadows growAnd night begins to fall. AlthoughYour laughter calls acrossThe dark waters, A ghastly sunWatches in pale dismay.Oh, you may laugh, being as you areFair sisters of the evening star,But wait-if not todayA day will dawn When the bad dreamsYou scarcely know will scatterThe punctual increment of your lives.The road resumes, and where it curves,A mile from where you chatter,Somebody screams.
The girls are dead,The house and pond have gone.Steel bridge and concrete highway gleamAnd sing in the arctic dark; the screamWe started at is grownThe serenade Of an insaneAnd monstrous age. We liveThese days as on a different planet,One without trout or midges on it,Under the arc-lights ofA mineral heaven; And we have come,Despite ourselves, to noTrue notion of our proper work,But wander in the dazzling darkAmid the drifting snowDreaming of some Lost evening whenOur grandmothers, if grandMothers we had, stood at the edgeOf womanhood on a country bridgeAnd gazed at a still pondAnd knew no pain.
Claude Monet,Water Lilies 1906 (190 Kb); Oil on canvas, 87.6 x 92.7 cm (34 1/2 x 36 1/2 in); The Art Institute of Chicago
Robert Hayden, "Monet's Waterlilies“1966 Today as the news from Selma and Saigonpoisons the air like fallout,I come again to seethe serene, great picture that I love. Here space and time exist in lightthe eye like the eye of faith believes.The seen, the knowndissolve in iridescence, becomeillusive flesh of lightthat was not, was, forever is. O light beheld as through refracting tears.Here is the aura of that worldeach of us has lost.Here is the shadow of its joy.
Henri Matisse,The Red Studio (1911) Oil on canvas, 71“ x 86” The Museum of Modern Art, NYC
There is no one here.But the objects: they are real. It is notAs if he had stepped out or moved away;There is no other room and noReturning. Your foot or finger would passThrough, as into unreflecting waterRed with clay, or into fire.Still, the objects: they are real. It isAs if he had stoodStill in the bare center of this floor,His mind turned in in concentrated fury,Till he sankLike a great beast sinking into sandsSlowly, and did not look up.His own room drank him.What else could generate thisTerra cotta raging through the floor and walls,Through chests, chairs, the table and the clock,Till all environments of living areTransformed to energy--Crude, definitive and gay.And so gave birth to objects that are real.How slowly they took shape, his children, here, Grew solid and remain:The crayons; these statues; the clear brandybowl; W.D. Snodgrass,“Matisse: The Red Studio”1960
The ashtray where a girl sleeps, curling among flowers;This flask of tall glass, green, where a vine beginsWhose bines circle the other girl brown as a cypress knee.Then, pictures, emerging on the walls:Bathers; a landscape; a still life with a vase;To the left, a golden blonde, lain in magentas with flowers scattering like stars;Opposite, top right, these terra cotta women, living, in their world of living's colors;Between, but yearning toward them, the sailor on his red cafe chair, dark blue, self-absorbed.These stay, exact,Within the belly of these walls that burn,That must hum like the domed electric webWithin which, at the carnival, small cars bump and turn,Toward which, for strength, they reach their iron hands:Like the heavens' walls of flame that the old magi could see;Or those ethereal clouds of energyFrom which all constellations form,Within whose love they turn.They stand here real and ultimate.But there is no one here.
X.J. Kennedy“Nude Descending a Staircase”1961 Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,A gold of lemon, root and rind,She sifts in sunlight down the stairsWith nothing on. Nor on her mind. We spy beneath the banisterA constant thresh of thigh on thigh--Her lips imprint the swinging airThat parts to let her parts go by. One-woman waterfall, she wearsHer slow descent like a long capeAnd pausing, on the final stairCollects her motions into shape. Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) Oil on canvas, 58”x 35”. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Edward Hopper, House by the Railroad (1925) Oil on canvas, 24 inches x 29 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Edward Hirsch,“Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925),” 1995 Now the stranger returns to this place dailyUntil the house begins to suspectThat the man, too, is desolate, desolateAnd even ashamed. Soon the house starts To stare frankly at the man. And somehowThe empty white canvas slowly takes onThe expression of someone who is unnerved,Someone holding his breath underwater. And then one day the man simply disappears.He is a last afternoon shadow movingAcross the tracks, making its wayThrough the vast, darkening fields. This man will paint other abandoned mansions,And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly letteredStorefronts on the edges of small towns.Always they will have this same expression, The utterly naked look of someoneBeing stared at, someone American and gawky.Someone who is about to be left aloneAgain, and can no longer stand it. Out here in the exact middle of the day,This strange, gawky house has the expressionOf someone being stared at, someone holdingHis breath underwater, hushed and expectant; This house is ashamed of itself, ashamedOf its fantastic mansard rooftopAnd its pseudo-Gothic porch, ashamedof its shoulders and large, awkward hands. But the man behind the easel is relentless.He is as brutal as sunlight, and believesThe house must have done something horribleTo the people who once lived here Because now it is so desperately empty,It must have done something to the skyBecause the sky, too, is utterly vacantAnd devoid of meaning. There are no Trees or shrubs anywhere--the houseMust have done something against the earth. All that is present is a single pair of tracksStraightening into the distance. No trains pass.
Kate Fagan, “Circa 1927: Realising Belief”2008 This world of geometry and truthoutruns my handin sprawling colour. Awake in constancyand a vaulted skywhere sun gives shape to limbs I saw youstanding with the jacarandas,siren of a new present as though feelingcould not be pacified by numbersand shone replete in things. We are here — only here.Hill, bucket, river that fillsand empties in a pool at my feet. Grace Cossington Smith's Trees, 1927, Newcastle Region Art Gallery
Charles Henry Demuth (1883-1935), I Saw the Figure Five in Gold Oil on board, approximately 30 inches x 36 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. 1928 This is actually a painting on a poem. Demuth’s painting is based on W.C. Williiams’ poem
William Carlos Williams, “The Great Figure”1920 Among the rainand lightsI saw the figure 5in goldon a redfire truckmovingtenseunheededto gong clangssiren howlsand wheels rumblingthrough the dark city
Paul Delvaux, The Village of the Mermaids (1942) Oil on panel, 41”x 49” The Art Institute of Chicago.
Lisel Mueller, “Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids Oil on canvas, 1942” 1988 Who is that man in black, walkingaway from us into the distance?The painter, they say, took a long timefinding his vision of the world. The mermaids, if that is what they areunder their full-length skirts,sit facing each otherall down the street, more of an alley,in front of their gray row houses.They all look the same, like a fair-hairedorder of nuns, or like prostituteswith chaste, identical faces.How calm they are, with their vacant eyes,their hands in laps that betray nothing.Only one has scales on her dusky dress. It is 1942; it is Europe,and nothing fits. The one familiar figureis the man in black approaching the sea,and he is small and walking away from us.
Jackson Pollack, Number 1 (1948) Oil on canvas, 68 inches x 104 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.