Classes & Workshops

Words with Pictures: Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis: (meaning “description” in Greek; expanded to mean “the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device.”)

Merriam-Webster: a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art

I published my first ekphrastic poems in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of Ekphrasis, edited by Laverne Frith and Carol Frith. The poem, titled “Four Photographs by Edward S. Curtis,” consists of four short sections, each named after one of Curtis’s iconic photographs from the early 20th century. 

I wrote the poems after seeing these images in a New York Times Store ad, offering “new limited-edition oversize fine-art print, hand-embossed with Curtis’s signature.” Of course, I’d seen them many times in the past; Curtis’s photographs of Native Americans and the landscapes of places like Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and Oregon are well-known. “Oasis in the Badlands,” which shows a profile of Red Hawk (who fought many battles, including Custer in 1876) in full feather headdress, seated on a white horse, is especially famous.

I remember how the blurry 2”x3” photographs struck me. It was ridiculous, even insulting to think of these amazing works of art reproduced on newsprint in the middle of a page full of ads. On the other hand, each one seemed like a portal to the original scene, seen through the eyes of the photographer. I saved the page, cut out the images and pasted them into my journal. A few days later, I wrote these poems:

Five Photographs by Edward S. Curtis

Crater Lake, 1923

I stood before the lake

one summer day

minerals fell

silent fragments

all at once

the souls of children rose up together

headed west

over the valley


not grief

nothing rippled

the lake’s surface

An Oasis in the Badlands, 1905

This land has not saved us.

My horse drinks here

for the last time.

Winter will come, unaware

of how I leaned back in the saddle

as my animal filled herself,

the river emptying

under her hooves;

loss wears away

to black and white

soft like ashes after

a prairie fire.

Canyon de Chelly, 1904

The distance divides itself

and becomes greater,

a covert equation.

Our horses raise their heads,

alert to barometric change.

We look up from the sandy floor

to the top of an island.

What logic put an ocean here

and then took it away

gallon by salty gallon?

The Rush Gatherer, 1910

All day

I go about my work

groping through mud

and living things.

People think

the hardest part

is bundling thick

wet grass, but

it’s watching my hands

disappear into

that dark water

again and again.

The Vanishing Race, 1904

When you finally saw us

you gave us names

intended to destroy.

We are going

not because we are doomed

but because you are. 

You have facts and we

have facts.  How differently

the truth accords itself.

We know

how to address the mountain.

No towns will come here

and roads will dwindle to one.

No one else wanted this land:

we, its reluctant

caretakers, ride

the horses you brought us

straight into the cliff.

I sent the poem to Ekphrasis, who accepted four of the five sections (they didn’t accept “The Rush Gatherer, 1910”) and so the poem became “Four Photographs by Edward S. Curtis.” Ekphrasis also nominated the poem for a Pushcart, my first, which was, I admit, pretty exciting.

In 2018, The Ekphrastic Review published the poem with “The Rush Gatherer.” The link includes sepia-toned representations of the photographs, which looked gray in the NY Times Store ad. 

I’m not sure how, exactly, this happens, but when I see just the right painting, it feels as if the artist is stirring her paintbrush inside my head. Photographs move me similarly, as do installations—collections of objects, or a looped video, for example, can have the same effect on me. I never know what will do the trick, what will wake up different parts of my brain, stimulating thoughts and pulling up memories. This is, of course, all part of the fun.

We write ekphrastic poems not to describe the art, necessarily, but to glean some truths from it, to see connections, to uncover things in ourselves in the intersection between words and pictures. 

I’m teaching a 13-week, online course called “Exploring Ekphrasis” through Wordcrafters in Eugene, Oregon. We have room for a few more students, so please, if you are interested, sign up at the link: Class starts Tuesday, September 7 at 6:00 pm Pacific.

Description: Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, museums from all over the world have made their collections available for online viewing. In this class, we will write ekphrastic poems (poems inspired by visual art) in response to these vast collections of art, observing paintings, photography, and sculpture, in close detail. We will study and discuss ekphrastic poems by Anne Sexton, John Keats, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, John Stone and others, understanding how these poets’ work is a starting place for our own. Each week, we’ll study the work of a different poet and the artwork they write about, sharing our insights with the class. As part of a writing community, we’ll comment constructively on each other’s work, giving and receiving feedback in a respectful manner.

By the end of the course, students will have twelve drafts or completed poems, one for each week, and an appreciation for ekphrasis as an inspiration for poetic creativity.

List of goals for the class:

  • Become aware of all the art available for viewing.
  • Study ekphrasis as a sub-genre of poetry.
  • Close read ekphrastic poems.
  • Experiment with writing your own ekphrastic poems.
  • Leave with 12 completed poems or drafts of ekphrastic poems!
  • Be inspired to continue your own exploration of ekphrastic poetry, both reading and writing.

Hope to see you!

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