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Ekphrastic is a type of poem that explores art. The poet engages with any type of visual art within their writing.

Although ekphrastic poems are normally associated with painting, drawing, sculpture, etc., they might also be poems about songs for dances. The term comes from the Greek for “description.” There are no rules to ekphrastic poetry. This means that writers can write about almost anything that fits the guidelines, using any rhyme or meter they’re interested in. Plus, as seen below, there are several different types of ekphrasis one might use.

Pronunciation: ick-fras-tic


Definition and Explanation of Ekphrastic

Ekphrastic poems are those written about pieces of art. Writers who chose to create these pieces do so with a great deal of imagery. They spend time studying the artwork, whether that be a sculpture, painting, drawing, song, or dance, and then try to convey through their words the experience of viewing the art. By the end of the poem, readers should be able to feel as though they, too, have spent that time studying the art. Or, at the very least, feel as though they are part of the art’s world.


Why Do Writers Write Ekphrastic Poems?

Ekphrastic poems are incredibly impactful when a poet wants to spend time focusing on one remarkable piece of art. They’re used to create a powerful experience for the reader. They’re introduced to the art, usually through the title or an epigraph, and immediately brought into the world of the artist and poet in the first lines.


History of Ekphrastic Poetry

The first ekphrastic poems were accounts of real-life scenes, ones that were extra vivid. Epic poets in Greece, more than 2,000 years ago, uses ekphrasis to improve their audience’s ability to imagine and visualize the scenes they were interested in. These were usually moments from important battles. One passage of The Iliad, in which the speaker describes Achilles shield, is often cited as an example. This dates back to 762 B.C and also proves that ekphrastic poems can be about things that the poet has imagined. They don’t have to be about real-life works of art. Achilles shield is an example of notional ekphrasis.


Examples of Ekphrastic Poems

Starry Night by Anne Sexton

Starry Night by Anne Sexton is a beautiful poem in which Sexton taps into her own sorrow and struggles in order to depict Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. She describes the panting emotionally and memorably. The night is described as a “rushing beast” and  “great dragon.” Everything feels alive in the poem as it does in the painting. In the end, Sexton expresses a desire to merge with the sky upon her death and live forever in its movements.


The Dance by William Carlos Williams

‘The Dance’ is one of Williams’ best poems. It was inspired by a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder known as “The Kermess” or “Peasant Dance.” The painting depicts a lively and warm dance within a carnival atmosphere. The poet focuses on the emotive qualities of the dancers and how their bodies are not always graceful. They dance chaotically in part due to the amount of alcohol that they’ve consumed. By the end, readers should be able to envision the painting.


The Arnolfini Marriage by Paul Durcan

‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ is based on one of Jan van Eyck’s most famous paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait (also known as The Arnolfini Marriage or Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife). The painting was completed in 1434 and is one of van Eyck’s best. It depicts a couple standing in their bedroom in vibrant colors. The poem describes the lack of access the reader has to the couple’s private life, and no matter how long one looks at the painting, there are still some things that remain a secret.


Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is one of the most famous ekphrastic poems. In it, Keats uses notational ekphrasis to addresses an imagined ancient vase. He describes what’s on the outside of the vase and alludes to what it might’ve been used for. Perhaps it held wine or as used as a funerary urn. Keats takes the poem to the next level by talking to the characters on the vase.


Nighthawks by Anne Carson

Nighthawks Carson takes inspiration from Edward Hopper’s best-known painting of the same name. In it, the viewer observes two men and one woman sitting in a restaurant through broad glass windows. The poet suggests in her poem that time is one of the most important factors in the poem. It has created distances between the figures in the diner. The poet also talks about the light and darkness in the scene, something that Hopper is famed for.


Types of Ekphrastic Poems

Actual ekphrasis

An actual ekphrastic poem is one that’s about something that really exists in the world, like “The Starry Night” or ‘The Arnolfini Marriage.” It is observable at the same time that one is reading the poem.


Notional ekphrasis

An example of notional ekphrasis is something fictional, like Achilles’ shield, or any other piece of mythological creation. It might also refer to mental processes like dreams and thoughts.


Unassessable actual ekphrasis

This type of ekphrastic poem describes something that once existed but didn’t anymore. This might be a painting, sculpture, vase, or anything else that was destroyed or lost over time.


Related Literary Terms

  • Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
  • Analogy: an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
  • Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines, but it is normally much longer.
  • Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
  • Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Metaphor: is used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it without using “like” or “as.”
  • Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.


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