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All About Ekphrastic Poetry

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, one of the main characteristics of poetry is mimesis. It is the art of mimicking real life and absorbing its essence via the written word. And you can witness this characteristic if you think about the number of imagery and figurative language that poets use in their poems. They aim to make the scenery, the image, and the emotion alive to the reader. 

A kind of poetry exists solely for the goal of providing readers vivid accounts of real or imagined objects, persons or sceneries. This type of poetry is called Ekphrastic Poetry. It is any kind of poem that is written in response to a non-literary work – turning the visual into the verbal or written form. The term “ekphrastic” is a Greek word which means description.

Kinds of Ekphrastic Poetry

Epic poetry, like those preserved from ancient civilisations such as the Greeks and the Romans, used the technique in Ekphrastic poetry to make the heroes’ adventures and battles real for their audience. In order to do this, they write lengthy and vivid word paintings within the story of these scenes or enargia.

As mentioned before, Ekphrastic poetry can deal with real or imagined subjects. Ekphrastic poetry that deals with real objects, people, or events is called Actual ekphrasis. An example would be John Keats’ poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. The poem describes the scenery and the speculated narration of this scene that is found on a Grecian urn, one of the many artifacts that could be found in the British Museum.

The other kind of Ekphrastic poetry is Notional ekphrasis where the subject of the poem is imagined objects, persons, or scenery. An example of this is the lengthy description of the beauty and craftsmanship of Achilles’ shield in 18th Book of Homer’s The Iliad. It is counted as notional ekphrasis since the poet could not have possibly seen the famed shield of the legendary Greek hero, Achilles personally.

Other Examples of Ekphrastic Poetry

  1. Anne Sexton’s “Starry Night” – Everyone has heard of the famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh, “The Starry Night.” However, American poet Anne Sexton writes her ekphrastic version of the famous Impressionist painting with a unique inclusion of her own interpretation made colourful with hints of her real-life, personal experiences. 
  2. Jon Hollander’s “The Mad Potter” – In his poem, Hollander describes the art of pottery and uses it as a metaphor from which the persona derives his internal reflections about himself and life in general. The persona’s narration focuses on feelings of struggle, ennui, and bitterness.
  3. Marianne Boruch’s “Still Life” – Boruch’s poem also contains a description and contemplation of the poem’s persona based from a 1620 still life artwork by Muller. The persona looks at and analyses every significant element of the painting and tells its narrative from its point-of-view.
  4. Matthew Olzmann‘s “The Replica of the Thinker” – Olzmann’s example of ekphrastic poetry is exciting and unique as it is written from the persona’s interpretation while being in the shoes of the statues. The narration shifts from the statue’s point-of-view to the personal experiences and memories of the persona.