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Poems inspired by paintings

Today we explore examples of “ekphrastic,” which means “creative writing inspired by visual art.”

For those among us who try to learn a new word each week, I have a dandy contribution. The word is “Ekphrastic.” Some of you may know it, and I salute you. For others, it’s this week’s new word. Derived from the Greek, it means a vivid description or reaction to a work of art. “The Ekphrastic Review” . . .  yes, there is a specific on-line journal . . .  uses the simple definition: “creative writing inspired by visual art.” That will do just fine.

I’d like to share some poetic examples, so if you’ll join me, let’s trip the light ekphrastic.

Four modern poets have written in response to Pieter Brueghel’s 1565 painting, “Hunters in the Snow.” Of the four: John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, Walter de la Mare and John Langland, the piece by Berryman (1914-1972; Pulitzer Prize 1965) is the most descriptively interesting . . . and comfortably ekphrastic.

Pieter Brueghel: “Hunters in the Snow.” 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

* * *

The three men coming down the winter hill
In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds
At heel, through the arrangement of the trees,
Past the five figures at the burning straw,
Returning cold and silent to their town,

Returning to the drifted snow, the rink
Lively with children, to the older men,
The long companions they can never reach,
The blue light, men with ladders, by the church
The sledge and shadow in the twilit street,

Are not aware that in the sandy time
To come, the evil waste of history
Outstretched, they will be seen upon the brow
Of that same hill: when all their company
Will have been irrecoverably lost,

These men, this particular three in brown
Witnessed by birds will keep the scene and say
By their configuration with the trees,
The small bridge, the red houses and the fire,
What place, what time, what morning occasion

Sent them into the wood, a pack of hounds
At heel and the tall poles upon their shoulders,
Thence to return as now we see them and
Ankle-deep in snow down the winter hill
Descend, while three birds watch and the fourth flies.

* * *

Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 painting of “The Starry Night” is one of the world’s best-known works of art. And while most of us focus on the great swirls in the night sky, poet Anne Sexton concentrates on the desolate town below and sees an expression of her longing for death.

Van Gogh “The Starry Night.” Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

* * *

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

Both Anne Sexton and Vincent Van Gogh took their own lives.

* * *

Allen Ginsberg, a founding member of the Beat Poets of the 1950’s, had a binding attachment to the paintings of Cézanne and spent many hours at the Museum of Modern Art in New York absorbing the Cézanne collection.  Here, in a poem called “Cézanne’s Ports” he suggests a reality that “doesn’t occur on the canvas.”

“L’Estaque, Cézanne,” an 1883 painting of a fishing village west of Marseille. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

* * *

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.

But that meeting place
isn’t represented;
it doesn’t occur on the canvas.

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.

And the immense water of L’Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats.

* * *
Closer to home, here is a little-known Massachusetts artist named Edwin Romanzo Elmer who, following the unexpected death of Effie, his nine year old daughter, painted in 1890 a surreal scene that combined the parents in mourning but the child as living, her pet lamb beside her. Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), one of the most influential American poets of the last fifty years, gave a voice to Effie in this moving piece.

“Mourning Picture” painted by Edwin Romanzo Elmer in 1890. Smith College Museum of Art.

* * *

They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rocker
out 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 pram
gazing at western Massachusetts.
This was our world.
I could remake each shaft of grass
feeling its rasp on my fingers,
draw out the map of every lilac leaf
or 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 light
carving each spoke of the pram, the turned porch-pillars,
under high early-summer clouds,
I am Effie, visible and invisible,
remembering and remembered.

* * *

Some people extend the definition of ekphrastic to include not just paintings but also other forms of visual art, especially sculpture. In this case we can include a splendid sonnet by John Keats, “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” In March of 1817, Keats visited the British Museum and for the first time saw and wondered at the Greek statuary that a British diplomat named Lord Elgin had stripped from the Parthenon. The sight spoke to Keats of art and mortality.

A portion of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum

* * *

My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

* * *

VIDEO.  The ultimate example of ekphrastic writing is when the response to a painting is not just a poem but an entire stage piece.  And this is the case with Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, “Sunday in the Park with George.” The George of the title is the pointillist Georges Seurat and the painting is called “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” In the closing of the First Act of the musical George places the characters in their painted positions, and Sondheim’s lyrics describe the pointillist technique, describing grass as “green purple yellow red.” And with such fine music.

“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” Painting by Georges Seurat. The Art Institute of Chicago.

* * *

Order
Design
Tension
Balance
Harmony

Sunday,
By the blue purple yellow red water
On the green purple yellow red grass,
Let us pass through our perfect park,

Pausing on a Sunday
By the cool blue triangular water
On the soft green elliptical grass,
As we pass through arrangements of shadows
Toward the verticals of trees
Forever . . .

By the blue purple yellow red water
On the green orange violet mass of the grass
In our perfect park,

Made of flecks of light
And dark
And parasols . . .

People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday . . .
Sunday
Sunday

CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO:    POEMS AND PAINTINGS

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