Ekphrasis is a rhetorical device by which one art medium is expressed in terms of another. Ekphrastic poetry has come to mean the expression of a painting or a sculpture in terms of poetry, and it’s increasingly popular. The National Gallery of Scotland has an annual competition for poems about art works in its collections, and it’s a very popular competition. (Deadline is usually the end of January, folks, so look out for it).
As one who loves all kinds of arts – visual, plastic, musical, dramatic – I’ve written my fair share of poems inspired by art objects, and many other poets have done so too.
But I would argue against a simplistic representation in words of the elements of a painting, and I’ve seen examples of that. I regard that as catalogue captioning, no matter how fancy the words used are in describing the painting. A poem is a different kind of object; it has words as its medium, certainly, but it also has form, style, meaning and content. It has a context and a history as rich as the visual arts. Used well, all these can add value to an appreciation of an art object, by expressing emotions, bearing witness, or looking at the object from a different viewpoint. The best examples startle you with their originality, and make you look again at the original. They personalise the object, by showing the verbal reactions of an observer to the thing observed.
So I’ll continue to enjoy good ekphrastic poetry, while remaining critical of the not-so-good. And I come back again to Pound’s exhortation: Make It New!