Table of Contents

Ekphrasis in Haiku, Tanka and Related Forms:
I. A Personal Reflection

Ekphrasis: "Description" in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the "action" of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. . .

The Poetry Foundation, 2015

An early lesson I learned in my college art history class was how difficult was to write a description of a work of art. The earliest preserved example is Homer's description of the fictional shield of Achilles in the Iliad, which in turn inspired Virgil and became a writing exercise in the classical school curriculum. Those of us educated in the last century may have been introduced to it through Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or W. H. Auden's and William Carlos Williams' meditations on Brueghel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus".

As a writer and art teacher, I knew about writing to images but did not realize that this was a recognized genre of poetry or that there was a name for it. Then, in 2005 I was frequenting an art education listserve where some of the other teachers began talking about ekphrastic writing. Intrigued, I researched, learned more, and when a similar discussion came up on the Yahoo Tanka group, I posted a reply with what I'd learned. Within hours I received an email from an'ya. She wanted an article on ekphrastic tanka for the next issue of the TSA journal, Ribbons.

I had never written an ekphrastic poem, but rashly I agreed, began to work on it, and quickly discovered that there was not much material on the applications of ekphrasis to tanka or any of the Japanese-derived short forms. Worse, with a looming deadline, there was no time to solicit permission to republish anything by other authors. I'd have to write the tanka myself, and I'd have to restrict my choice of artworks to famous paintings that required no illustration: Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, O'Keeffe and Warhol. It became a two-part article, "Mirroring Picasso: Exercises in Ekphrastic Tanka", and" Still Life with Flowers: Exercises with Ekphrastic Tanka" (Ribbons, Spring and Summer, 2006). I still smile at the audacity of my novice-level tanka paired with famous masterpieces.

I did not think much more about ekphrastic poetry until the 2010 Yuki Teikei retreat at Asilomar. The invited speaker was Margaret Chula, who had recently published What Remains, the product of a seven-year collaboration with Cathy Erickson pairing poems and art quilts in remembrance of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. For the Asilomar workshop, Maggie distributed prints by Diane Arbus and other photographers and coached us in writing persona poems from them.

Compiling a list of resources for this issue, I found two of the urls I used in 2006 to be dead but new resources have more than compensated for them. What a difference between then and now! Even as recently as Auden's and Williams' meditations on the Brueghel, describing the artwork remains as it was for the ancients: a significant part of the poem.

Ekphrasis has evolved far from its orgins as a rhetorical exercise in describing a work of art. These days there are a variety of approaches.

II. A writing exercise:
prompts with examples

Resources for ekphrastic haiku,
tanka and the related forms

Click on the thumbnails for parts II and III
of this article.

On the website of the Academy of American Poets' website, Alfred Corn advocates "not merely a verbal “photocopy” of the original painting, sculpture, or photograph, but instead a grounded instance of seeing shaped by forces outside the art work. . . drawn from their own experience—the facts, reflections, and feelings that arise at the confluence of a work of visual art and the life of the poet."

For most of us, ekphrastic poetry is possible because of social media and a culture of image sharing (see the Credits section of our Contributors page for more on this). There are now ways to juxtapose the art image, hyperlink to it or perhaps even appropriate it into a new work of art.

To round things off, I thought I'd include not only a page of resources but also a practicum page with a series of ekphrastic writing prompts from a website for lesson plans—this one for high school level English. I hope you enjoy the writing exercise as much as I did!


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