Ekphrastic Poetry

Ekphrasis:
writing that comments upon another art form, for instance a poem about a photograph or a novel about a film.  Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a prime example of this type of writing, since the entire poem concerns the appearance and meaning of an ancient piece of pottery.


Assignment:
For Paper 3, you will need to select a poem and artwork to analyze and compare in some way.   In class we have been attempting to read poems as if they were paintings on a canvas, and for your next paper I would like you to explore the intersection of literature and the visual arts. The length requirement will be the same as your previous papers, four to five pages, so you will need to find a very specific and focused thesis statement that compares your two pieces of art.  You will need to include a minimum of four sources, including the two works you are examining.

Some issues to consider to get you started in the direction of a thesis: the type of language used by the poet and the "syntax" of lines used by the painter; composition and the use of space, color, shapes, etc.; the level of abstraction; the use of symbols or figurative language; the presence or absence of a subject; the movement of energy; the regularity of line length or rhyme or form and the use or abandonment of structure; time period or regionality of the language or artistic style; the use of materials in the work's construction; pauses, gaps, and punctuation (or lack thereof) in the poem; rhyme, rhythm, and meter; issues of performance, how is this to be performed and/or received by an audience; issues of framing or focus - what has been left out or cropped from the painting or the poem? 

Select your works from the examples below, or see the following website,
The Poet Speaks of Art, for many (many!) more pairings of paintings with poems.  If you uncover additional examples, please email me at valerie6@uga.edu with your suggestions, and many thanks to the contribut0rs who have helped me compile this webmuseum.


Painting Poem
Number 1
Jackson Pollock (1948)

Number 1

"Number 1 by Jackson Pollock"
Nancy Sullivan (1965)

No name but a number.
Trickles and valleys of paint
Devise this maze
Into a game of Monopoly
Without any bank. Into
A linoleum on the floor
In a dream. Into
Murals inside of the mind.
No similes here. Nothing
But paint. Such purity
Taxes the poem that speaks
Still of something in a place
Or at a time.
How to realize his question
Let alone his answer? 

Painting and Poem Song
Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh (1889)

Starry Night

"The Starry Night"
Anne Sexton (1961)

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.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

"Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)"
Don McLean

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey 
Look out on a summer's day 
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul 

Shadows on the hills 
Sketch the trees and the daffodils 
Catch the breeze and the winter chills 
In colors on the snowy linen land 

Now I understand 
What you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity 
And how you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they'll listen now 

Starry, starry night 
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze 
Swirling clouds and violet haze 
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue 

Colors changing hue 
Morning fields of amber grain 
Weathered faces lined in pain 
Are soothed beneath the artists' loving hand 

Now I understand 
What you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity 
And how you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they'll listen now 

For they could not love you 
But still your love was true 
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night 
You took your life as lovers often do 
But I could have told you Vincent 
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you 

Like the strangers that you've met 
The ragged men in ragged clothes 
The silver thorn and bloody rose 
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow 

Now I think I know 
What you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity 
And how you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, they're not listening still 
Perhaps they never will.

Painting and Two Related Poems
Fall of Icarus
Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1558)

Brueghel's Fall of Icarus


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

*Note: Icarus is in the water in front of the ship.  Only his legs are visible as he falls to his death.

"Musée des Beaux Arts"
W. H. Auden (1938)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse 
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"
William Carlos Williams (1962)

According to Brueghel 
when Icarus fell 
it was spring 

a farmer was ploughing 
his field 
the whole pageantry 

of the year was 
awake tingling 
near 

the edge of the sea 
concerned 
with itself 

sweating in the sun 
that melted 
the wings' wax 

unsignificantly
off the coast 
there was 

a splash quite unnoticed 
this was 
Icarus drowning

Monument Three Related Poems
Vietnam Veterans War Memorial

The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington D.C., built in 1982, is a huge black granite wall carved into the ground.  The over 58,000 names are not listed in alphabetical order, but in chronological order of death or capture.

"Facing It"
Yusef Komunyakaa (1988)

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone.  I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning.  I turn
this way -- the stone lets me go.
I turn that way -- I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names, 
half-expecting to find 
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky.  A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine.  I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone.  In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

"Reflection on the Vietnam War Memorial"
Jeffrey Harrison (1987)

Here is, the back porch of the dead.
You can see them milling around in there,
   screened in by their own names,
   looking at us in the same 
vague and serious way we look at them.

An underground house, a roof of grass --
one version of the underworld.  It's all
   we know of death, a world
   like our own (but darker, blurred).
inhabited by beings like ourselves.

The location of the name you're looking for
can be looked up in a book whose resemblance
   to a phone book seems to claim
   some contact can be made
through the simple act of finding a name.

As we touch the name the stone absorbs our grief.
It takes us in -- we see ourselves inside it.
   And yet we feel it as a wall
   and realize the dead are all
just names now, the separation final.
 

"The Vietnam Wall"
Alberto Rios (1988)

I
Have seen it
And I like it: The magic,
The way like cutting onions
It brings water out of nowhere.
Invisible from one side, a scar
Into the skin of the ground 
From the other, a black winding
Appendix line.
     A dig.
       An archaeologist can explain.
The walk is slow at first,
Easy, a little black marble wall
Of a dollhouse,
A smoothness, a shine
The boys in the street want to give.
One name.  And then more
Names, long lines, lines of names until
They are the shape of the U.N. Building
Taller than I am: I have walked
Into a grace.
And everything I expect has been taken away, like that, quick:
      The names are not alphabetized.
      They are in the order of dying,
      An alphabet of --somewhere--screaming.
I start to walk out.  I almost leave
But stop to look up names of friends,
My own name.  There is somebody
Severiano Ríos.
Little kids do not make the same noise
Here, junior high school boys don't run
Or hold each other in headlocks.
No rules, something just persists
Like pinching on St. Patrick's Day
Every year for no green.
      No one knows why.
Flowers are forced
Into the cracks
Between sections.
Men have cried
At this wall.
I have 
Seen them.

Painting Poem
Girl Before a Mirror
Pablo Picasso (1932)

Girl Before a Mirror

"Before the Mirror"
John Updike (1996)

How many of us still remember 
when Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror" hung 
at the turning of the stairs in the pre- 
expansion Museum of Modern Art? 
Millions of us, probably, but we form 
a dwindling population. Garish 
and brush-slashed and yet as balanced 
as a cardboard Queen in a deck of giant cards, 
the painting proclaimed, "Enter here 
and abandon preconception." She bounced 
the erotic balls of herself back and forth 
between reflection and reality. 

Now I discover, in the recent re- 
trospective at the establishment,
that the vivid painting dates 
from March of 1932, 
the very month which I first saw light, 
squinting nostalgia for the womb. 
I bend closer, inspecting. The blacks, 
the stripy cyanide greens are still uncracked, 
I note with satisfaction; the cherry reds 
and lemon yellows full of childish juice. 
No sag, no wrinkle. Fresh as paint. Back then 
they knew how, I reflect, to lay it on. 

Painting Poem
American Flamingo
John James Audubon (1838)

American Flamingo
 

"American Flamingo"
Greg Pape (1998)

I know he shot them to know them.
I did not know the eyes of the flamingo
are blue, a deep live blue.

And the tongue is lined with many small
tongues, thirteen, in the sketch
by Audubon, to function as a sieve.

I knew the long rose-pink neck,
the heavy tricolored down-sweeping bill,
the black primaries.

But I did not know the blue eye
drawn so passionately by Audubon
it seems to look out, wary, intense,

from the paper it is printed on.
                         -- what
Is man but his passion?

asked Robert Penn Warren. In the background
of this sketch, tenderly subtitled Old Male,
beneath the over-draping feathered

monument of the body, between the long
flexible neck and the long bony legs
covered with pink plates of flesh,

Audubon has given us eight postures,
eight stunning movements in the ongoing
dance of the flamingos.

Once at Hialeah in late afternoon
I watched the satin figures of the jockeys
perched like bright beetles on the backs

of horses pounding down the home
stretch, a few crops whipping
the lathering flanks, the loud flat

metallic voice of the announcer fading
as the flamingos, grazing the pond water
at the far end of the infield, rose

in a feathery blush, only a few feet
off the ground, and flew one long
clipped-winged ritual lap

in the heavy Miami light, a great
slow swirl of grace from the old world
that made tickets fall from hands,

stilled horses, and drew toasts from the stands
as they settled down again
like a rose-colored fog on the pond.


Painting Poem
I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
Charles Demuth (1928)

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

"The Great Figure"
William Carlos Williams (1920)

Among the rain 
and lights 
I saw the figure 5 
in gold 
on a red 
firetruck 
moving 
tense 
unheeded 
to gong clangs 
siren howls 
and wheels rumbling 
through the dark city. 
 
 

*Note: in this case, the poem inspired the painting,
not the other way around.

 

Occult Game Two Related Poems
Ouija Boards
Originated c.1850
All images taken from the Museum of Talking Boards

Kennard Novelty Ouija Board
Kennard Novelty Co. Board (1891)

Idopsychoideograph Ouija Board
I-D-O PSY-CHO-I-D-E-O-GRAPH (1919)

Lee Industries Ouija Board
Lee Ind. Glow in the Dark Edition (1940)

Parker Brothers Deluxe Ouija Board
Parker Brothers Deluxe Edition (1967)

Predicta Ouija Board
Predicta All Knowing Magii Board (1968)

Finger of Fate Ouija Board
Colorforms Finger of Fate (1971) 

"Ouija"
Sylvia Plath (1957)

It is a chilly god, a god of shades,
Rises to the glass from his black fathoms.
At the window, those unborn, those undone
Assemble with the frail paleness of moths,
An envious phosphorescence in their wings.
Vermillions, bronzes, colors of the sun
In the coal fire will not wholly console them.
Imagine their deep hunger, deep as the dark
For the blood-heat that would ruddlr or reclaim.
The glass mouth sucks blooh-heat from my forefinger.
The old god dribbles, in return, his words.

The old god, too, write aureate poetry
In tarnished modes, maundering among the wastes,
Fair chronicler of every foul declension.
Age, and ages of prose, have uncoiled
His talking whirlwind, abated his excessive temper
When words, like locusts, drummed the darkening air
And left the cobs to rattle, bitten clean.
Skies once wearing a blue, divine hauteur
Ravel above us, mistily descend,
Thickening with motes, to a marriage with the mire. 

He hymns the rotten queen with saffron hair
Who has saltier aphrodisiacs
Than virgins' tears. That bawdy queen of death,
Her wormy couriers aer at his bones.
Still he hymns juice of her, hot nectarine.
I see him, horny-skinned and tough, construe
What flinty pebbles and ploughable upturns
As ponderable tokens of her love.
He, godly, doddering, spells
No succinct Gabriel from the letters here
But floridly, his amorous nostalgias.
 

Excerpts from The Book of Ephraim
James Merrill (1980)

Here, there, swift handle pointing, letter upon
Letter taken down blind by my free hand --
At best so clumsily, those early sessions
Break off into guesswork, paraphrase.
Too much went whizzing past.  We were too nice
To pause, divide the alphabetical
Gibberish into words and sentences.

---

Another evening at the Ouija board
(Which only worked when you were side by side,
Fingertips touching hers--
That women, smoking, auburn-haired, abhorred)

A word from Eros made it all worthwhile:
UPON MY STAGE DEAD HUNTERS DANCED IN TIME
WITH THOSE U SAW BELOW
Leo, transcribing it, looked up.  His smile.

--

Jung says --or if he doesn't, all but does --
That God and the Unconscious are one.  Hm.
The lapse that tides us over, hither, yon;
Tide that laps us home away from home.
Onstage, the sudden trap about to yawn --
Darkness impenetrable, pit wherein 
Two grapplers lock, pale skin and copper skin.
Impenetrable brilliance, topmost panes
Catching the sunset, of a house gone black...
Ephraim, my dear, let's face it.  If I fall
From a high building, it's your name I'll call,
OK?  Now let me go downstairs to pack,
Begin to close the home away from home --
Upper story, lower, doublings, triplings,
Someone not Strato helping with my bags,
Someone not Kleo coming to dust and water
Days from now.  And when I stroll by ripplings
A winged Lion of gold with open book
Stands watch above, what vigilance will keep
Me from one emblematic, imminent,
Utterly harmless failure of recall.
Let's face it: the Unconscious, after all...

Painting Poem
Nude Descending a Staircase
Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Nude Descending a Staircase

"Nude Descending a Staircase"
X. J. Kennedy (1961)

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind. 

We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh--
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to let her parts go by. 

One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape. 

 

Painting Poem
The Great Wave at Kamagawa
Katsushika Hokusai (1823)

The Great Wave at Kamagawa

"The Great Wave: Hokusai"
Donald Finkel (1991)

But we will take the problem in its most obscure manifestation, and suppose that our spectator is an average Englishman. A trained observer. carefullyhidden behind a screen, might notice a dilation in his eyes, even an intake ofhis breath, perhaps a grunt. (Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art) 

It is because the sea is blue,
Because Fuji is blue, because the bent blue
Men have white faces, like the snow
On Fuji, like the crest of the wave in the sky the color of their
Boats. It is because the air
Is full of writing, because the wave is still: that nothing
Will harm these frail strangers,
That high over Fuji in an earthcolored sky the fingers
Will not fall; and the blue men
Lean on the sea like snow, and the wave like a mountain leans
Against the sky.

In the painter's sea
All fishermen are safe. All anger bends under his unity.
But the innocent bystander, he merely
'Walks round a corner, thinking of nothing': hidden
Behind a screen we hear his cry.
He stands half in and half out of the world; he is the men,
But he cannot see below Fuji
The shore the color of sky; he is the wave, he stretches
His claws against strangers. He is
Not safe, not even from himself. His world is flat.
He fishes a sea full of serpents, he rides his boat
Blindly from wave to wave toward Ararat. 

Painting Poem
House by the Railroad
Edward Hopper (1925)

House by the Railroad

"Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad"
Edward Hirsch (1995)

Out here in the exact middle of the day,
This strange, gawky house has the expression
Of someone being stared at, someone holding
His breath underwater, hushed and expectant;

This house is ashamed of itself, ashamed
Of its fantastic mansard rooftop
And its pseudo-Gothic porch, ashamed
of its shoulders and large, awkward hands. 

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here 

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no 

Trees or shrubs anywhere--the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass. 

Now the stranger returns to this place daily
Until the house begins to suspect
That the man, too, is desolate, desolate
And even ashamed. Soon the house starts 

To stare frankly at the man. And somehow
The empty white canvas slowly takes on
The expression of someone who is unnerved,
Someone holding his breath underwater. 

And then one day the man simply disappears.
He is a last afternoon shadow moving
Across the tracks, making its way
Through the vast, darkening fields. 

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression, 

The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it. 

Painting Poem
The Village of the Mermaids 
Paul Delvaux (1942)

The Village of the Mermaids

"Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids"
Lisel Mueller (1988)

Who is that man in black, walking
away from us into the distance?
The painter, they say, took a long time
finding his vision of the world. 

The mermaids, if that is what they are
under their full-length skirts,
sit facing each other
all down the street, more of an alley,
in front of their gray row houses.
They all look the same, like a fair-haired
order of nuns, or like prostitutes
with chaste, identical faces.
How calm they are, with their vacant eyes,
their hands in laps that betray nothing.
Only one has scales on her dusky dress. 

It is 1942; it is Europe,
and nothing fits. The one familiar figure
is the man in black approaching the sea,
and he is small and walking away from us. 

Painting Poem
American Gothic
Grant Wood (1930)

American Gothic

"American Gothic"
John Stone (1998)

Just outside the frame
there has to be a dog
chickens, cows and hay 

and a smokehouse
where a ham in hickory
is also being preserved 

Here for all time
the borders of the Gothic window
anticipate the ribs 

of the house
the tines of the pitchfork
repeat the triumph 

of his overalls
and front and center
the long faces, the sober lips 

above the upright spines
of this couple
arrested in the name of art 

These two
by now
the sun this high 

ought to be
in mortal time
about their businesses 

Instead they linger here
within the patient fabric
of the lives they wove 

he asking the artist silently
how much longer
and worrying about the crops 

she no less concerned about the crops
but more to the point just now
whether she remembered 

to turn off the stove. 


Painting Poem
Girl Powdering Her Neck
Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1790)

Girl Powdering Her Neck
 

"Girl Powdering Her Neck"
Cathy Song (1983)

The light is the inside
sheen of an oyster shell,
sponged with talc and vapor,
moisture from a bath. 

A pair of slippers
are placed outside
the rice-paper doors.
She kneels at a low table
in the room,
her legs folded beneath her
as she sits on a buckwheat pillow. 

Her hair is black
with hints of red,
the color of seaweed
spread over rocks. 

Morning begins the ritual
wheel of the body,
the application of translucent skins.
She practices pleasure:
the pressure of three fingertips
applying powder.
Fingerprints of pollen
some other hand will trace. 

The peach-dyed kimono
patterned with maple leaves
drifting across the silk,
falls from right to left
in a diagonal, revealing
the nape of her neck
and the curve of a shoulder
like the slope of a hill
set deep in snow in a country
of huge white solemn birds.
Her face appears in the mirror,
a reflection in a winter pond,
rising to meet itself. 

She dips a corner of her sleeve
like a brush into water
to wipe the mirror;
she is about to paint herself.
The eyes narrow
in a moment of self-scrutiny.
The mouth parts
as if desiring to disturb
the placid plum face;
break the symmetry of silence.
But the berry-stained lips,
stenciled into the mask of beauty,
do not speak. 

Two chrysanthemums
touch in the middle of the lake
and drift apart. 

Painting Poem
St. George and the Dragon
Paolo Uccello (1460)

St. George and the Dragon

"Not My Best Side" 
U. A. Fanthorpe (1989)

Not my best side, I'm afraid.
The artist didn't give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn't comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don't mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously. 

II 

It's hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It's nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn't much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon--
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl's got to think of her future. 

III 

I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can't
Do better than me at the moment.
I'm qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don't you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don't
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don't you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You're in my way. 

Painting Poem
L'Estaque
Paul Cezanne (1883)

L'Estaque

"Cezanne's Ports" 
Allen Ginsberg (1950)

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore. 

But that meeting place
isn't represented;
it doesn't occur on the canvas. 

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains. 

And the immense water of L'Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats. 

Artwork Poem
Sketch of Grecian Urn
John Keats (1819)

Sketch of Grecian Urn
 
 
 
 

"Ode on a Grecian Urn Summarized"
Desmond Skirrow (1960)

Gods chase
Round vase.
What say?
What play?
Don't know.
Nice, though.
 
 
 

 

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
John Keats (1819)

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness, 
   Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
   A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
   Of deities or mortals, or of both,
     In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
   What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
     What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
  Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
  Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
     Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
     She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
  For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
  Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
  For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
  For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
     For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
  That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
     A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
  To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
  And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
  Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
     Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
  Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
     Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
  Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
  Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
  When old age shall this generation waste,
     Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
  Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," --that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Painting Poem
The Disquieting Muses
Giorgio de Chirico (1916)

The Disquieting Muses

 

"The Disquieting Muses"
Sylvia Plath (1957)

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt 
Or what disfigured and unsightly 
Cousin did you so unwisely keep 
Unasked to my christening, that she 
Sent these ladies in her stead 
With heads like darning-eggs to nod 
And nod and nod at foot and head 
And at the left side of my crib? 

Mother, who made to order stories 
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear, 
Mother, whose witches always, always, 
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder 
Whether you saw them, whether you said 
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed, 
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head. 

In the hurricane, when father's twelve 
Study windows bellied in 
Like bubbles about to break, you fed 
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine 
And helped the two of us to choir: 
"Thor is angry: boom boom boom! 
Thor is angry: we don't care!" 
But those ladies broke the panes. 

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced, 
Blinking flashlights like fireflies 
And singing the glowworm song, I could 
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress 
But, heavy-footed, stood aside 
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed 
Godmothers, and you cried and cried: 
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out. 

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons 
And praised my arabesques and trills 
Although each teacher found my touch 
Oddly wooden in spite of scales 
And the hours of practicing, my ear 
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable. 
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere, 
From muses unhired by you, dear mother, 

I woke one day to see you, mother, 
Floating above me in bluest air 
On a green balloon bright with a million 
Flowers and bluebirds that never were 
Never, never, found anywhere. 
But the little planet bobbed away 
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here! 
And I faced my traveling companions. 

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. 


Painting Poem
Nighthawks
Edward Hopper (1942)

Nighthawks

 

"A Midnight Diner by Edward Hopper"
David Ray (1970)

Your own greyhounds bark at your side.
It is you, dressed like a Siennese,
Galloping, ripping the gown as the fabled
White-skinned woman runs, seeking freedom.
Tiny points of birches rise from hills,
Spin like serrulate corkscrews toward the sky;
In other rooms it is your happiness
Flower petals fall for, your brocade
You rediscover, feel bloom upon your shoulder.
 

And freedom's what the gallery's for.
You roam in large rooms and choose your beauty.
Yet, Madman, it's your own life you turn back to:
In one postcard purchase you wipe out
Centuries of light and smiles, golden skin
And openness, forest babes and calves.
You forsake the sparkler breast
That makes the galaxies, you betray
The women who dance upon the water,
All for some bizarre hometown necessity!
Some ache still found within you!
Now it will go with you, this scene
By Edward Hopper and nothing else.
It will become your own tableau of sadness
Composed of blue and grey already there.
Over or not, this suffering will not say Hosanna.
Now a music will not come out of it.
Grey hat, blue suit, you are in a midnight
Diner painted by Edward Hopper.
 

Here is a man trapped at midnight underneath the El.
He sought the smoothest counter in the world
And found it here in the almost empty street,
Away from everything he has ever said.
Now he has the silence they've insisted on.
Not a squirrel, not an autumn birch,
Not a hound at his side, moves to help him now.
His grief is what he'll try to hold in check.
His thumb has found and held his coffee cup.
 

"Nighthawks"
Samuel Yellen (1952)

The place is the corner of Empty and Bleak,
The time is night's most desolate hour,
The scene is Al's Coffe Cup or the Hamburger Tower,
The persons in this drama do not speak.

We who peer through that curve of plate glass
Count three nighthawks seated there--patrons of life:
The counterman will be with you in a jiff,
The thick white mugs were never meant for demitasse.

The single man whose hunched back we see
Once put a gun to his head in Russian roulette,
Whirled the chamber, pulled the trigger, won the bet,
And now lives out his x years' guarantee.

And facing us, the two central characters
Have finished their coffee, and have lit
A contemplative cigarette;
His hand lies close, but not touching hers.

Not long ago together in a darkened room,
Mouth burned mouth, flesh beat and ground
On ravaged flesh, and yet they found
No local habitation and no name.

Oh, are we not lucky to be none of these!
We can look on with complacent eye:
Our satisfactions satisfy,
Our pleasures, our pleasures please.

Painting Poem
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles
Vincent van Gogh (1888)

Arles

"Van Gogh's Bed"
Jane Flanders (1985)

is orange,
like Cinderella's coach, like
the sun when he looked it
straight in the eye.

is narrow, he sleeps alone, tossing
between two pillows, while it carried him
bumpily to the ball.

is clumsy,
but friendly. A peasant
built the frame; and old wife beat
the mattress till it rose like meringue.

is empty,
morning light pours in
like wine, melody, fragrance,
the memory of happiness.

Painting Poem
Mourning Picture
Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1890)

Mourning

"Mourning Picture"
Adrienne Rich (1965)

They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rocker
out under the lilac bush,
and my father and mother darkly sit there, in black clothes.
Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill,
my doll lies in her wicker pram
gazing at western Massachusetts.
This was our world.
I could remake each shaft of grass
feeling its rasp on my fingers,
draw out the map of every lilac leaf
or the net of veins on my father's
grief-tranced hand.

Out of my head, half-bursting,
still filling, the dream condenses--
shadows, crystals, ceilings, meadows, globes of dew.
Under the dull green of the lilacs, out in the light
carving each spoke of the pram, the turned porch-pillars,
under high early-summer clouds,
I am Effie, visible and invisible,
remembering and remembered.

Sculpture Poem
The Belvedere Torso
Anonymous Athenian Sculptor (1st century BC)

Belvedere

"To the Fragment of a Statue of Hercules"
Samuel Rogers (1814)

And dost thou still, thou mass of breathing stone,
(Thy giant limbs to night and chaos hurl'd)
Still sit as on the fragment of a world;
Surviving all, majestic and alone?
What tho' the Spirits of the North, that swept
Rome from the earth, when in her pomp she slept,
Smote thee with fury, and thy headless trunk
Deep in the dust mid tower and temple sunk;
Soon to subdue mankind 'twas thine to rise.
Still, still unquell'd thy glorious energies!
Aspiring minds, with thee conversing, caught
Bright revelations of the Good they sought;
By thee that long-lost spell in secret given,
To draw down Gods, and lift the soul to Heav'n!

Painting Poem
Peele Castle in a Storm
Sir George Beaumont (1805)

Peele Castle

"Elegiac Stanzas"
William Wordsworth (1807)

Suggested by a Picture of PEELE CASTLE, in a Storm,
painted BY SIR GEORGE BEAUMONT.

I was thy Neighbour once, thou rugged Pile!
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day; and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.

So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene'er I look'd, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never pass'd away.

How perfect was the calm! it seem'd no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings: . . . . . .
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle Things.

Ah! THEN, if mine had been the Painter's hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet's dream;

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile!
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss: . . . . . .

Thou shouldst have seem'd a treasure-house, a mine
Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven:--
Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
The very sweetest had to thee been given.

A Picture had it been of lasting ease,
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature's breathing life.

Such, in the fond delusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made: . . . . . .
And seen the soul of truth in every part;
A faith, a trust, that could not be betray'd.

So once it would have been,--'tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new controul:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humaniz'd my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne'er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene. . . . . . .

Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,
If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,
This Work of thine I blame not, but commend;
This sea in anger, and that dismal shore.

Oh 'tis a passionate Work!--yet wise and well;
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves, . . . . . .
Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,
The light'ning, the fierce wind, and trampling waves.

Farewell, farewell the Heart that lives alone,
Hous'd in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied; for 'tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient chear,
And frequent sights of what is to be born!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.--
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn. . . . . . .

Painting Poem
Abraham and the Angels
Raphael (1518)

Raphael

"On the Group of the Three Angels Before the
Tent of Abraham, by Rafaelle, in the Vatican"

Washington Allston (1813)

O, now I feel as though another sense,
From heaven descending, had informed my soul;
I feel the pleasurable, full control
Of Grace, harmonious, boundless, and intense.
In thee, celestial Group, embodied lives
The subtile mystery, that speaking gives
Itself resolved; the essences combined
Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.
Borne like a leaf by some soft eddying wind,
Mine eyes, impelled as by enchantment sweet,
From part to part with circling motion rove,
Yet seem unconscious of the power to move;
From line to line through endless changes run,
O'er countless shapes, yet seem to gaze on One. 

Painting Poem
The Head of Medusa
Anonymous, once thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1782)

Medusa

"On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery"
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819)


      IT lieth, gazing on the midnight sky,
        Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;
      Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;
        Its horror and its beauty are divine.
      Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie    
        Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,
      Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
      The agonies of anguish and of death.
      Yet it is less the horror than the grace
        Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone;
      Whereon the lineaments of that dead face
        Are graven, till the characters be grown
      Into itself, and thought no more can trace;
        'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown
      Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,  
      Which humanize and harmonize the strain.
      And from its head as from one body grow,
        As [    ] grass out of a watery rock,
      Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow
        And their long tangles in each other lock, 
      And with unending involutions shew
        Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock
      The torture and the death within, and saw
      The solid air with many a ragged jaw.
      And from a stone beside, a poisonous eft  
        Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;
      Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft
        Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise
      Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,
        And he comes hastening like a moth that hies
      After a taper; and the midnight sky
      Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.
      'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;
        For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare
      Kindled by that inextricable error,  
        Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air
      Become a [      ] and ever-shifting mirror
        Of all the beauty and the terror there-
      A woman's countenance, with serpent locks,
      Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.

Painting Poem
Virgin of the Rocks
Leonardo da Vinci (1483)

Virgin of the Rocks

"For Our Lady of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci"
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1848)

Mother, is this the darkness of the end,
The Shadow of Death? and is that outer sea
Infinite imminent Eternity?
And does the death-pang by man's seed sustained
In Time's each instant cause thy face to bend
Its silent prayer upon the Son, while He
Blesses the dead with His hand silently
To His long day which hours no more offend?

Mother of grace, the pass is difficult,
Keen are these rocks, and the bewildered souls
Throng it like echoes, blindly shuddering through.
Thy name, O Lord, each spirit's voice extols,
Whose peace abides in the dark avenue
Amid the bitterness of things occult.

Sculpture Poem
The Greek Slave
Hiram Powers (1844)

Greek Slave

"Hiram Powers' Greek Slave"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1886)

  They say Ideal Beauty cannot enter
The house of anguish. On the threshold stands
An alien image with enshackled hands,
Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her
(That passionless perfection which he lent her
Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)
To so confront man?s crimes in different lands
With man?s ideal sense. Pierce to the center,
Art?s fiery finger! and break up ere long
The serfdom of this world! appeal, fair stone,
From God?s pure heights of beauty against man?s wrong!
Catch up in the divine face, not alone
East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,
By thunders of white silence, overthrown.


Painting Poem
The Old Guitarist
Pablo Picasso (1903)


Old Guitarist
Stanzas I - IV of "The Man with the Blue Guitar"
Wallace Stevens (1936)

                 I
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said to him, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar,
Of things exactly as they are.”

                 II
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If a serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

                 III
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings . . .

                 IV
So that's life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that's life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.


*Note: only the first 4 of 33 stanzas are reprinted here.
Painting Poem
Woman Before an Aquarium
Henri Matisse (1921)

Matisse

"Woman Before an Aquarium"
Patricia Hampl (1978) <>

The goldfish ticks silently,
little finned gold watch
on its chain of water,
swaying over the rivulets of the brain,
over the hard rocks and spiny shells.

The world is round, distorted
the clerk said when I insisted
on a round fishbowl.
Now, like a Matisse woman,
I study my lesson slowly,
crushing a warm pinecone

in my hand, releasing
the resin, its memory of wild nights,
my Indian back crushing
the pine needles, the trapper
standing over me, his white-dead skin.

Fear of the crushing,
fear of the human smell.
A Matisse woman always wants
to be a mermaid,
her odalique body
stretches pale and heavy
before her and the exotic wall hangings;
the only power of the woman:
to be untouchable.

But dressed, a simple Western face,
a schoolgirl's haircut, the plain desk
of ordinary work, she sits
crushing the pinecone of fear,
not knowing it is fear.
The paper before her is blank.

The aquarium sits like a lantern,
a green inner light, round
and green, a souvenir
from the underworld,
its gold residents opening and closing
their worldless mouths.

I am on the shore of the room,
glinting inside
with the flicker of water,
heart ticking with the message
of biology to a kindred species.
The mermaid -- not the enchantress,
but the mermaid of double life --
sits on the rock, combing
the golden strands of human hair,
thinking as always
of swimming.
Painting Poem
The Millinery Shop
Edgar Degas (1890)

Millinery Shop

"Edgar Degas: The Millinery Shop"
Adam Zagajewski (1994)

Hats are innocent, bathed in the soft light
which smoothes the contours of objects.
A girl is working.
But where are brooks?  Groves?
Where is the sensual laughter of nymphs?
The world is hungry and one day
will invade this tranquil room.
For the moment it contents itself
with ambassadors who announce:
I'm the ochre, I'm the sienna.
I'm the color of terror, like ash.
In me ships sink.
I'm the blue, I'm cold, I can be pitiless.
And I'm the color of dying, I'm patient.
I'm the purple (you don't see much of me),
for me triumphs, processions.
I'm the green, I'm tender,
I live in wells and in the leaves of birch trees.
The girl whose fingers are agile
cannot hear the voices, for she's mortal.
She thinks of the coming Sunday
and the rendezvous she has
with the butcher's son
who has coarse lips
and big hands
stained with blood.

Painting Poem
Dance
Henri Matisse (1909)

Dance

"Matisse's Dance"
Natalie Safir (1990)

A break in the circle dance of naked women,
dropped stitch between the hands
of the slender figure stretching too hard
to reach her joyful sisters.

Spirals of glee sail from the arms
of the tallest woman.  She pulls
the circle around with her fire.
What has she found that she doesn't
keep losing, her torso
a green-burning torch?

Grass mounds curve ripely beneath
two others who dance beyond the blue.
Breasts swell and multiply and
rhythms rise to a gallop.

Hurry, frightened one and grab on--before
the stich is forever lost, before the dance
unravels and a black sun swirls from that space.

Painting Poem
Black Cross, New Mexico
Georgia O'Keeffe (1929)

O'Keeffe

"Wormwood: The Penitents"
Ellen Bryant Voigt (1994)

I always thought she ought to have been an angel.
There's one I saw a picture of, smooth white,
the wings like bolts of silk, breasts like a girl's--
like hers--eyebrows, all of it.  Ten years
I put away a little every year,
but her family was shamed by the bare grave,
and wasn't I to blame for everything,
so now she has a cross.  Crude, rigid, nothing
human in it, flat dead tree on the hill,
it's what you see for miles, it's all I see.
Symbol of hope, the priest said, clearing his throat,
and the rain came down and washed the plastic flowers.
I guess he thinks that dusk is just like dawn.
I guess he had forgot about the nails.


Architectural Structure
Poem
The Brooklyn Bridge
Opened to traffic in 1883

Brooklyn

"To Brooklyn Bridge"
Hart Crane (1930)

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty--

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
--Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,--
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,--

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path--condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Architectural Structure
Painting
The Brooklyn Bridge
Opened to traffic in 1883

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge
Joseph Stella (1939)

Stella





The Contributors

The following people have been of tremendous help in compiling these examples and deserve full credit:

<>Shane Bruce for offering the song "Vincent" by Don McLean, and the pairing of Plath's poem with de Chirico's painting "The Disquieting Muses."

Harry Rusche, from Emory University, who has compiled a very extensive website entitled The Poet Speaks of Art, which has many more examples of poems that correspond to various paintings.  Many of the examples above have been taken from his site, including Hokusai's The Great Wave at Kamagawa" and Finkel's poem "The Great Wave: Hokusai," Hopper's painting and Hirsch's poem "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad," Delvaux's painting and Mueller's poem "Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids," Wood and Stone's "American Gothic," Pollock's painting and Sullivan's poem "Number 1 by Jackson Pollock," Utamaro and Song's "Girl Powdering Her Neck," Cezanne's "L'Estaque" and Ginsberg's poem "Cezanne's Ports," and my personal favorite, Uccello's "St. George and the Dragon" paired with the Fanthorpe poem, "Not My Best Side."

Monica Smith for Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror" and the poem "Before the Mirror," Audubon's "American Flamingo" and the poem "American Flamingo," vanGogh's "Starry Night" and the Sexton poem "The Starry Night," Williams' "The Great Figure" and Demuth's painting "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold," Duchamp and Kennedy's "Nude Descending a Staircase," Elmer and Rich's "Mourning Picture," and van Gogh's "Vincent's Bedroom in Arles," and the Flanders poem, "Van Gogh's Bed."

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