In my workshops I often invite participants to respond to images—whether from the New York Times Magazine fashion issue (Who dresses like that? Discuss.), PostSecret, my friend Lauren Rutten’s photographs, or works of art. Mary Winksy’s “Snowfields of Childhood” in last week’s blog post was an example of the fine writing that often results from engaging with images.
This type of writing is called “ekphrasis,” although the term specifically refers to poetry written in response to an image (click here for an in-depth discussion of the topic). I had the opportunity to learn more about ekphrastic poetry this past August from Dr. Jim Brosnan, a poet and English professor at Johnson & Wales University. Jim and his wife Donna run the Ocean Park Writers Conference in Maine, which I have attended for four summers running.
Here’s something for you to try, from a Smithsonian Institution worksheet Jim gave to us at the conference. Using the Manet painting above (“The Railway,” 1873), jot down answers to the following questions, and be as specific in your details as possible:
List the first words that come to mind when you look at this artwork.
PLOT: What is happening in this artwork? What story is being told?
CHARACTER: Who or what is the subject of the painting? How would you describe them?
SETTING: What is the mood of the artwork? What sounds, smells, feelings, tastes could you associate with it?
How does this artwork connect with you personally?
MAIN IDEA: Now that you have closely observed the artwork, how would you summarize its main idea?
After you have finished, go back and circle any words or phrases you might want to incorporate into a poem. And voilà , you have a beginning! You can do this exercise with any piece of art or photography. Here are some ideas for where you might want to go next with your piece. And if you decide you want to try for publication, there is a journal specifically for ekphrastic poetry. Why not give it a shot?