“Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness. ” (Wikipedia)
You’ve probably most commonly come across the literary version, where a poem is inspired by a painting. I’ve done that quite often. Here’s an example – Tondo (the word means a circular painting), inspired by a Raphael in the National Galleries of Scotland:
It was some years back
but I remember it well.
The Gallery called and asked me
to confirm some plants
in a Raphael. I’d been working
on the old Herbals, knew
my plants. Piece of cake,
I thought, and so it was.
The painter was no Füllmauer,
no Gesner, but his skills
were up to the job.
For the most part,
standard European flora;
meadow flowers mostly,
and strewn at foot,
understated but accurate,
trefoil leaves, toothed,
white flowers and red hearts
among the foliage.
Fragaria vesca, I’d know it
anywhere, a wildwood berry,
as tasty then as now. The answers
were easy; the questions
have me stumped, still. Why
strawberries? What have they to do
with the Christian story? In which
Gospel do they figure?
Do they echo Christ’s sweet
bleeding heart? Or the blood
to come? I didn’t know then,
still don’t. The iconography
can’t be separated from the art,
and that’s bound tightly to a faith
I don’t share. The story is told
in many ways – an infinite variety –
the parents, the child, but a child
with a destiny overhanging,
a fate, and the sharp sweet tang
of strawberries. These ones,
note this well, not the modern,
swollen, watery confections,
but closer to the Alpine kind,
tart and acid, and thinly scattered.
The palm tree’s out of place; Middle East
in Europe, not native, not even close,
as this one’s a date palm,
Phoenix dactylifera, needing
more heat than Italy provides
to make its bone-hearted fruit,
the one-dimensional taste
of soft, sugary pap.
What the artist knew,
had experienced, were the sweets
of the forest floor, scarce,
in the semi-shade,
hard to find, harder to forget,
like the ones in Raphael’s image,
carmine drops in a landscape
limned by belief.
Copyright © Colin Will
(If I ever revise it, I’ll take out the word ‘limned’, not because it’s the wrong word – it isn’t – but because it’s too obscure, but this is how it was published).
But I digress. I’m often inspired by sculpture too, but ekphrasis can also apply to other arts; to painting inspired by music, to poetry inspired by ceramics, and so on. One of the arts I pursue is jazz and poetry, where I improvise musically to the words of poetry. I find it immensely satisfying, and I’ve been to performances over the years which I’ve hugely enjoyed. I started in the 1960s, and continued for twenty years or so. I’ve recently taken it up again, and I was pleased to discover I still love doing it. So I’m doing it again.
Going back to ekphrastic poetry, I think the one kind I find totally unsatisfactory is where the words merely attempt to describe or parallel a painter’s work. These poems can’t stand up on their own, without having the work of art behind them. You’ve got to add another dimension, make the words do what words are best at, enlist the imagination of the reader. Otherwise you might just as well have a go at copying the painting, and that will not end well.