Ekphrastic Poetry: Words Inspired by Images

A photo I took and then submitted is the subject for this month of June's Ekphrastic* Poetry Challenge at Rattle magazine. You have the whole month to write a poem to or about the picture and submit it to them (not me, although I'll get to read them all, too). Here's the link: http://www.rattle.com/poetry/extras/ekphrasis/

If you have not heard of ekphrastic poetry, here is one example. Octavio Paz wrote an ekphrastic poem for the artist Joseph Cornell that was translated by Elizabeth Bishop and is included in Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters, as well as in her book Geography III: Poems. That the work is a translation is only revealed at the end, a curious kind of reframing. The poem is "Objects & Apparitions." You can read it online here.

Susan B. Rosenbaum, on pages 209-213 in her book Professing Sincerity: Modern Lyric Poetry, Commercial Culture, and the Crisis in Reading makes an interesting observation about this particular ekphrasis. She writes that Paz translates Cornell's art into words, framing them and arranging them to create his own image, then Bishop makes decisions and choices as she translates Paz's work. Rosenbaum writes, "…translation makes the poem no less her own; Bishop's signature is most legible as she wipes it away to reveal a box within a box within a box."

Mentioned in the boxes of the poem are: "Marbles, buttons, thimbles, dice / pins, stamps, and glass beads: tales of time." As I search through a wonderful catalogue: Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination, I note marbles, buttons, dice, but no thimbles or glass beads. I see colored sand and cork and rings more than anything else. The poem mentions "Grand Hotel de la Couronne" and I see only "Grand Hotel Fontaine," I see no "in a vial, / the three of clubs," but that does not mean these objects are not in other pictures in other books I do not have.

Even so, ekphrastic poetry is most interesting when new ideas and layers are added, when other thoughts are juxtaposed with what is first just seen and felt. Rather than literally describe and outline what is already there, art can weave the image and the word together to create a deeply enhanced or completely new meaning. It appears that this is what Paz's/Bishop's poem does: invoking its own collaborative cabinet of wonder.

L'Egyte de Mlle Cléo de Mérode: cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle, 1940
by Joseph Cornell (photo, page 114)

*Definition from Wikipedia: A graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art, inspired or stimulated by it. From the Greek "out" and "speak"; to call an inanimate object by name. In poetry it is also used to show essence and form, the spirit of the visual work.


I learned so much from this article!