Art and poetry have been inspiring each other for a long time, which is why the literary world has given poems that confront artwork a fancy name: ekphrasis. If you’re a lover of words like I am, that word just might send shivers up your spine. This idea of ekphrasis prompted me to look into writers who use the technique, and I was pleased to find a plethora of American poets confronting a huge span of artwork. Below, I’ve listed the five ekphrastic poems you should read right now—simply because they’re too lovely to wait, and after all, doesn’t everyone need a little poetry break now and again?
1. “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ “Washington Crossing the Delaware” at the Museum of Modern Art” by Frank O’Hara
The painting that inspired this poem, as indicated in the title, is Larry Rivers’ “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1953). In this poem, O’Hara’s imagery is what interests me the most, especially his repeated use of the color white. In the painting, we find white occupying quite a bit of the visual space, and it’s brilliant to see this recreated within the imagery of the poem, as well. You can see the first image of this kind surface in the first stanza of the poem below:
“Now that our hero has come back to us in his white pants and we know his nose trembling like a flag under fire, we see the calm cold river is supporting our forces, the beautiful history.”
“Washington Crossing the Delaware” is still on display at the MoMA. You can read O’Hara’s full poem by clicking here.
2. “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton’s poem was inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic oil painting, “The Starry Night” (1889). It’s not surprising that we find an ekphrastic poem confronting this painting—its turbulent yet undeniably lovely movements and colors lend itself to poetry. Perhaps it’s even fitting that Anne Sexton is that poet, considering that both the poet and the artist experienced similar struggles with mental illnesses during their lifetimes. What captivates me about Anne Sexton’s poem is how she describes the sky itself, as you can see in the fourth line of the first stanza:
“The town does not exist except where one black-haired tree slips up like a drowned woman into the hot sky. The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars. Oh starry starry night! This is how I want to die.”
Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” is currently on display at the MoMA. You can read Sexton’s full poem by clicking here.
3. “The Disquieting Muses” by Sylvia Plath
Based on a painting of the same name by Giorgio de Chirico in 1918, the unsettling mood of this poem echoes the painting perfectly. The poem is addressed to Plath’s mother and assumes a childlike tone, which is contrasted with her dark imagery and the mood of de Chirico’s painting. Plath’s strongest moment of connection with the painting appears in her imagery of faceless figures within the last stanza of her poem:
“Day now, night now, at head, side, feet, They stand their vigil in gowns of stone, Faces blank as the day I was born, Their shadows long in the setting sun That never brightens or goes down. And this is the kingdom you bore me to, Mother, mother. But no frown of mine Will betray the company I keep.”
“The Disquieting Muses” is part of the Gianni Mattioli Collection in Milan. A reproduction of the painting is on display in New York City at the Italian Trade Commission. You can real Plath’s full poem by clicking here.
4. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams’ poem was inspired by Brueghel’s “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” (1558). Williams seems to be captured by the idea of the Icarus’s fall being set in springtime. Throughout the poem, he comments on the landscape’s bright, breezy look until the last two stanzas, which focus on Icarus’s role in the painting and serve as a point of contrast. In this way, the poem echoes the sense of the painting: the world continues blooming and doesn’t seem to notice that a boy has fallen from the sky.
“According to Brueghel when Icarus fell it was spring”
Pieter Brueghel’s “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. You can read Williams’ full poem by clicking here.
5. “Cézanne’s Ports” by Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg’s short poem is based on Paul Cézanne’s painting “L’Estauqe” (1883-85). The painting is examined in Ginsberg’s poem in pieces, one in each stanza: the foreground of the village, the meeting place, the shores off the canvas, the other side of the bay, and finally the water. I find it interesting that Ginsberg chooses to focus first on the smaller components of the painting, and lastly on the part of the painting that immediately draws the viewer’s eye.
“For the other side of the bay is Heaven and Eternity, with a bleak white haze over its mountains.”
Cézanne’s “L’Estauqe” is currently on display at the MoMA. You can read Ginsberg’s full poem by clicking here.