Ekphrasis – Word as Art


Ekphrasis (sometimes spelled “ecphrasis”) essentially means “a work of literature that describes or comments on a work of art.” In short, it’s like a conversation between one artist and another, one working in paint; the other in words. The modern period — so influenced by art — provides many rich examples of this kind of artistic conversation. Enjoy these groupings of poem and picture.        

Conversation #1: Breughel and Auden
Pieter Breughel, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”


Musée de Beaux Arts

W.H. AudenAbout suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 


Conversation 2: Duchamp and Kennedy    
Marcel Duchamp, “Nude Descending a Staircase”

Nude Descending a Staircase

X. J. Kennedy Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,

A gold of lemon, root and rind,

She sifts in sunlight down the stairs

With nothing on. Nor on her mind.We spy beneath the banister

A constant thresh of thigh on thigh —

Her lips imprint the swinging air

That parts to let her parts go by.One-woman waterfall, she wears

Her slow descent like a long cape

And pausing, on the final stair

Collects her motions into shape. 


 Copyright © 1960, 1961 by Doubleday Co. 


Conversation #3: Maya Lin and Yusef Komunyakaa


Facing It

by Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,

hiding inside the black granite.

I said I wouldn’t,

dammit.  No tears.

I’m stone.  I’m flesh.

My clouded reflection eyes me

like a bird of prey, the profile of night

slanted against morning.  I turn

this way — the stone lets me go.

I turn that way — I’m inside

the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial

again, depending on the light

to make a difference.

I go down the 58,022 names

half-expecting to find

my own in letters like smoke.

I touch the name Andrew Johnson;

I see the booby trap’s white flash.

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse

but when she walks away

the names stay on the wall.

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s

wings cutting across my stare.

The sky.  A plane in the sky.

A white vet’s image floats

closer to me, then his pale eyes

look through mine.  I’m a window.

He’s lost his right arm

inside the stone.  In the black mirror

a woman’s trying to erase names:

No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.


 (c) Yusef Komunyakaa:No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.   (c) Yusef Komunyakaa

St. George and the Dragon, c. 1455-1460–Paolo Uccello

(c)National Gallery, London

Not My Best Side

Ursula FanthorpeNot my best side, I’m afraid.

The artist didn’t give me a chance to

Pose properly, and as you can see,

Poor chap, he had this obsession with

Triangles, so he left off two of my

Feet. I didn’t comment at the time

(What, after all, are two feet

To a monster?) but afterwards

I was sorry for the bad publicity.

Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror

Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride

A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?

Why should my victim be so

Unattractive as to be inedible,

And why should she have me literally

On a string? I don’t mind dying

Ritually, since I always rise again,

But I should have liked a little more blood

To show they were taking me seriously. 

II It’s hard for a girl to be sure ifShe wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite

Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be

Liked, if you know what I mean. He was

So nicely physical, with his claws

And lovely green skin, and that [attractive]tail,

And the way he looked at me,

He made me feel he was all ready to

[Devour] me….

So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,

On a really dangerous horse, to be honest

I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,

What was he like underneath the hardware?

He might have acne, blackheads or even

Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–

Well, you could see all [of him]

At a glance. Still, what could I do?

The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,

And a girl’s got to think of her future. 

III I have diplomas in DragonManagement and Virgin Reclamation.

My horse is the latest model, with

Automatic transmission and built-in

Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,

And my prototype armour

Still on the secret list. You can’t

Do better than me at the moment.

I’m qualified and equipped to the

Eyebrow. So why be difficult?

Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued

In the most contemporary way? Don’t

You want to carry out the roles

That sociology and myth have designed for you?

Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,

You are endangering job prospects

In the spear- and horse-building industries?

What, in any case, does it matter what

You want? You’re in my way.

(c) U.A. Fanthorpe, Selected Poems. 

  London: Penguin Press, 1989

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