Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Lessons in Ekphrasis: Writing and Analysis

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Lessons in Ekphrasis: Writing and Analysis

Article excerpt


The literary representation of visual art, ekphrasis, is proposed as a vantage point from which to teach literature and creative writing. Brief historical and theoretical overviews are provided as well as practical exercises and activities, adaptable to multiple academic levels, exploring and practicing ekphrasis. Examples of literature inspired by art that could be included in a course or unit on ekphrasis are provided.


A dynamic conversation between the visual and verbal arts has subsisted for over two-thousand-five-hundred years. While Roman poet Horace famously declared "ut pictora poesis" (as in painting, so is poetry) in his Ars Poetica (c. 13 BC), the first proclamation of the inter-relatedness of painting and poetry is attributed to Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (c.556-468 BC) who stated "poema picture loquens, picture poems silens" (poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent poet) (Heffernan, 1993). In the 11th and 12th Centuries, the Chinese school of Literati Painting found the art and craft of poetry intertwined and inseparable from painting; in the 14th Century, the tradition of Persian miniature painting was greatly influenced by Shahnama (the epic poem by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi); and in the 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his journal about the similarities and differences of painting and poetry ultimately trumpeting painting as the superior art form (Chadwick, 2005). Literary scholar Richard Altick (1985) estimated that between the 18th and 19th Centuries 2,300 paintings were created based or/Shakespearean plays. John Keat's classic 1820 poem Ode on a Grecian Urn is in essence a classic rumination on an art object. Writers in the 20th Century, including poets W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, Billy Collins and Mary Leader have found inspiration in works of fine art. Poet Wallace Stevens (1951) devoted an entire chapter of his book on poetics to "The Relations between Poetry and Painting." On the cusp of the 21st Century, Tracy Chevalier's critically acclaimed 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring was based on a Vermeer's painting of the same name.

Today the literary representation of visual art is called "ekphrasis" (Hefferman, 1993) and the study of the relationship between the visual and verbal arts has appeared in major museum exhibitions [1] and scholarly publications. With this rich, historical tradition and expansive body of literature, it seems quite natural to teach literature and creative writing from this vantage point; however, it is not often done so. Exercises and activities, adaptable to multiple academic levels, exploring and practicing ekphrasis are provided here to encourage and inspire teaching from this vantage point.

Theoretical Foundations

A symbol system is "a unique orientation for making meaning" (Noden & Moss, 1995, p. 1). Both art and writing are symbol systems containing specific individual elements that contribute to the overall meaning of a work. For example, adding one additional brushstroke or slightly changing the hue of a color in a painting can significantly alter the overall feel or meaning of the work just as adding one additional word or punctuation to a poem can affect the overall chemistry and meaning of the work (Goodman, 1976; Koch, 1998). Educator Christopher Davis, in Saving Pictures from the Flood: Using Visual Art in Creative Writing Workshops, writes of the semblance between the imagery of writing and the imagery of painting:

   The interplay between objectivity and artistic expression is nearly
   the same in the imagery of poetry and in the imagery of painting.
   Whereas the painter personalizes the image by painterly brush
   strokes, unexpected color combinations, shadow and form, the poet
   uses tone, timing, syntactic surprise and diction ... (1993, p. 327)

Every difference makes a difference in both poetry and painting. …

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