Journal of Writing & Environment

Web Rove: Ekphrasis: Exploring the Interplay of Art and Poetry

by Camille Meyers

Of all the written genres, I feel that poetry is closest to visual art. A poet must consider not only the sounds and meanings of their words, but also how they look on the page. The form of a poem can create motion, separation, or sometimes even take on the shape of its subject by creating a literal picture with words.

It’s not surprising then that poetry has inspired great works of art. Scholars suggest Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night was inspired by section 21 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

“Press close bare-bosom’d night – press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds – night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night – mad naked summer night.”

Starry Night

Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh (from Museum of Modern Art, New York City)

However, the door of inspiration swings both ways and many great poets have been inspired by the visual arts. For example, William Carlos Williams “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is a direct description of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting of the same name and muses on the artist’s intentions.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams (from Collected Poems: 1939-1962, Volume II published by New Directions Publishing Corp.)


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (from The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Belgum)

Ekphrasis derives from the Greek words “out” and “speak” and means a vivid description of a thing. Modern ekphrastic poetry focuses on works of visual art and goes beyond just elaborate description to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak with the subjects or creators of paintings, photography, or sculptures.

Water Lilies” by Claude Monet (from Honolulu Museum of Art)


Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller (from Second Language by Louisiana State University Press)

The impressionist painter, Claude Monet, known for his water lilies and studies of light, suffered from cataracts later in life which affected his vision. Many believe this also affected his paintings. Lisel Mueller takes the reader to the moment of diagnosis in “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Rather than delving into a single painting, Mueller explores Monet’s large body of work, “Fifty-four years before I could see / Rouen cathedral is built / of parallel shafts of sun, / and now you want to restore / my youthful errors: fixed / notions of top and bottom, / the illusion of three-dimensional space, / wisteria separate / from the bridge it covers.”

Visualizing Words and Worlds: Teaching students to see good writing through what’s around them” by Andrew Zornoza (from Poetry Foundation)

“What does poetry teach us? A new way of seeing, I think. But we rarely teach it that way,” writes Andrew Zornoza in his essay “Visualizing Words and Worlds: Teaching students to see good writing through what’s around them.” Zornoza explains how he teaches poetry by breaking it down into visual components and literally drawing it out on the chalk board. In a sense, Zornoza performs the opposite of ekphrasis by turning the spoken/written into a visual medium.

Morphing the visual into words or words into the visual challenges us to see something in a new way, asks us to delve a little deeper, and speak out what we find inside.