Wednesday, July 25, 2012


The paintings of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632 - 1675) are popular subjects for ekphrastic poems.  (For an explanation of ekphrasis and ekphrastic poems, see my previous post.)  As only 31 paintings exist which can be firmly attributed to Vermeer, and another four or five about which there is some doubt, some of Vermeer's paintings, and their people who inhabit his paintings, appear in a number of poems by different poets.

Let's look at a few Vermeer poems.

Stephen Mitchell, poet and translator, writes about Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Jug in his poem entitled, "Vermeer."

On first reading, the poem resembles a lovely, straightforward description:

          She stands by the table, poised
          at the center of your vision,
          with her left hand
          just barely on
          the pitcher's handle....

But go back to the epigraph which is in Latin, from the Bible's New Testament.  The short line from Luke 1: 48 translates as "For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden ...."  The poem now enlarges and the figure described in Mary, after the Annunciation, when she knows she is pregnant with Jesus.

          How weightless her body feels
          as she stands, absorbed, within this
          fulfillment that has brought more
          than any harbinger could.

And, finally, the poet writes that this woman gazes fondly "as though the light at the window/were a new-born child."
* * *                                              * * *                                                        * * *    
Ira Sadoff's "Vermeer: Girl Interrupted At Her Music" approaches the painting in several interestingly-different ways.

Though Vermeer’s artwork typically centers around women, Sardoff has the man giving the music lesson as the main character.  In telling the “story” of the painting, Sardoff also invents what happened moments prior to the scene depicted by Vermeer:

            When her mother entered the room, he did not
            look up.  The young girl’s pale skin turned
            white as the shawl she wore…

After what the reader may assume is a quick inspection of the room and its two occupants, the mother leaves and between the girl and her teacher

            so heavy as speech would be uttered between them,
            for there were still lessons to be learned,
            what was to be played would soon be played out.

The last line suggests the possibility of further, uninterrupted events between the man and the girl occurring beyond the moment of the painting.
* * *                                                     * * *                                      
On the other hand, Lawrence Raab’s “Great Art”

                                                                               Click here for Lawrence Raab's poem.

uses “Girl Asleep at a Table” by Vermeer

as merely an example to further his ideas and not as the main focus of his poem.  Raab establishes early that he dislikes paintings crowded with too many people and he’s most happy

            where you sense the artist changing his mind,
            and sometimes a shape’s been painted over,
            although the ghost of it remains.

He explains that Vermeer’s painting currently depicts a young woman who

            …leans on one hand, dreaming
            perhaps of love…

whereas x-rays show that at one time a man was in the painting.  (The subject of her dreams?)  Raab, pleased that Vermeer decided to leave out the man and “not to show that much.”  He concludes the poem with

            Let her keep her dreams to herself.
            Let the light be our secret.
There are many more than these three poems which include, or are about, Vermeer’s paintings.  They, like the poems discussed, use various methods to engage in ekphrastic writing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Simply put, ekphrasis is writing about, or attempting to represent, the visual arts.  An ekphrastic poem is one written about another form of art.

Ekphrasis goes back as far as Homer’s Iliad when the poet devoted a long passage to Achilles’ shield.  This reference was used centuries later in WH Auden’s poem, “The Shield of Achilles.”

An ekphrastic poem can work in different ways.  Certainly, one approach is for the words of the poem to explain or analyze what is happening in the painting, either in the overall painting or in one or two of the details.  Another method is to use the painting/photo/print/sculpture as a stepping stone and to go your own way into a poem, that is, to transcend the original idea of the artwork and move in a different direction so your poem becomes its own entity.

There are several possible avenues to take when writing more than merely a descriptive poem about a particular artwork.

1.     Enter the painting’s setting and make its spirit and space your own.
2.     Explore the life or essence of the artist.
3.     Give your emotional response to the artwork  (Does it remind you about something in your life, past or present?)
4.     Speak the poem as someone or something in the art object (possibly have them address the artist.
5.     Speak the poem as the artist.
6.     Address the poem to the artist and ask questions.
7.     Write about what happened just before (or just after) the event in the photograph or painting.