Sometimes when I’m stuck and in a rut with my writing I turn to other works of art (whether it’s visual art, theatre, music, dance, film or performance art). Along with writing about the piece in front of me I ask things like, why did I choose that particular piece? What is the piece’s cultural context? How does it speak to me?
While referring to variety of art forms is common in poetry, ekphrastic poetry is writing that places it at the centre. More than just a passing reference that alludes to a wider cultural context, ekphrastic poetry takes the art work as a central thread of the poem. There are many ways to approach ekphrastic poetry: the poem can look at the artwork in great detail, it can outline the physical details of the piece, it can discuss the cultural or historical context, it can delve into the life of the artist or riff off the key themes of the work.
But what is the point of writing about another piece of art? Sometimes it can be hard to know where to turn for new ideas or it can feel like you are writing about the same few themes over and over again. Turning to a different art form can be a way to break out of your usual way of writing and get into a different shape – whether that’s a visual piece, spatial or performative. It helps to get off the page and test out a new way of creating. It also provides different themes to explore, helps to consider different ways of creating, and inspires a deeper way of knowning or engaging with an artwork.
For Thom Donovan, writing in the Poetry Foundation, this process ’often serves as a guide. It shows me things I might not have seen otherwise, so acts as a tool for vision/visionary experience.’ I find that I often turn to installation art when writing ekphrastic poetry. There is something about walking into an altered space that helps me to see the world from a different perspective. I also look at the stories behind the artwork, present in artist statements. How did the artist get to this final product? What are the ideas that spiral out from this point, from this gallery into the wider world?
If you work best with deadlines, you can take a look at Rattle’s monthly ekphrasis competition. With a new artwork every month there is no shortage of ideas and the monthly deadline can help to get the poem written.
You can also check out these famous examples for some ideas of how poets have written about art:
- John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery’
- W. H. Auden, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’
- William Carlos Williams, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
- Anne Sexton’s ‘The Starry Night’
What piece of art work inspires your writing?