02 September 2013

our lost jungle poetry form challenge: challenge #5 - ekphrasis

Welcome to the fifth challenge of the 2013 OLJ Poetry Form Challenge! This year’s challenge is all about stepping out of comfort zones and learning to play with poetry. It’s also about taking the familiar—whether it’s a familiar form of poetry or the familiarity of the world around us—and turning it on its head to create something new. (For more on what the OLJ Poetry Form Challenge is all about, check out this post.)

The OLJ Poetry Form Challenge #5: Ekphrasis

challenge 5: ekphrasis

Now that we’re about halfway (actually, a little more than half) through this challenge, and now that we’ve covered the Gertrude Stein necessity (really … if you don’t play or struggle with Stein at least once, you’re missing out, whether you love or hate her), let’s “ease up” a little bit with something a little more familiar: Ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis, by its standard definition, is a literary description of a visual work of art (usually a painting). According to the most credible site on the web (yes, I’m talking about Wikipedia), the term originates from the Greek verb ekphrazein, which is “to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.” In poetry, Ekphrasis uses vivid language to describe what is happening in a work of visual art. The poem should, in essence, both breathe life into the piece of art and, in so doing, breathe life into itself.

While some use Ekphrasis as a means of literally describing what’s happening in a piece of art, others (like myself) prefer a more “liberal” application of the art form: the visual art is used as more of a muse than a model. One thing that both seasoned poet and student of poetry alike have found “problematic” in the form is finding vivid language to describe a piece of art. Or, to put it a different way, they feel “trapped” by the image itself, and feel there’s nothing all that interesting about what they’re doing in describing it. Where I’ve had better luck with Ekphrasis is in those times where instead of focusing on the story of or in an image I focus on the story behind or “above” the piece of art. What’s secretly happening in those trees? What if those aren’t mountains or rocks or trees behind Mona Lisa but an alien vessel, and this is the last blissful moment before all hell breaks loose?

jump in

Your task today is to pick an image and focus on the narrative behind or above the art you’ve chosen. Don’t tell us what’s happening in the picture: tell us what’s happening under, or above, or around it. Tell us the secret the image almost masks, but can’t hide from your perceptive eye.

For an added challenge, don’t use a famous painting, or any “usual” piece of visual art. Try a cartoon. Stick your camera out the window and snap a picture without looking. Try scrolling through some of the artwork at Exploding Dog, a site where an artist draws pictures from titles sent in by fans … complete the circle of life by taking art written to words and putting it back into words. (I’ll tell you a secret: I did this exercise once with a group of older students in which they started with familiar art like The Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, and the Statue of David, and then were presented with Exploding Dog art … The ED poems were a lot more interesting!)

Have fun, and don’t forget to share your attempts in the comments below or email them to ourlostjungle@kharahouse.com. Challenge yourself to see beyond, above, around, and through the art you choose … write a new breath.


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  1. I actually did a poem in class April of 2012 on "Mona Lisa" that I'll share then get down to work on prompt 5...

    Enchanted by your smile
    I wonder at the thoughts
    that tugged your lips just so,
    thoughts of God or mother,
    recalling a lover,
    might set that look in place.
    But, probably it was nothing more than
    a tummy twinge of hunger.

  2. Here one for you. http://miskmask.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/the-mother-of-all-deception/

  3. Uncle!
    I'm beaten by this one. I CANNOT get past the words in every one of these drawings. I can't be whimsical--they are already whimsical. I can't be realistic. I tried theology and philosophy. Tried a simple description. Nope. I been whooped by a line drawing.

    best I could manage

    1. That is a bit like how it turned out, isn't it?

    2. Barbara, after reading your poem I find no need for you to cry uncle. It is a splendid answer to the prompt!

  4. My brain hurts


  5. Thank you, Khara! I love the artwork...got lost in them yesterday but this is the one that originally struck me to write!


  6. I didn't try the cartoons yet. But, I did snap a photo:


  7. I like this better. The image is at http://briarcat.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/for-olj-an-image/

    On Jack Spencer's Absolution

    I call her Rose because her skin is white
    as a blanket of grief. I call her Rose
    because of her face, and her hair, the look of her.
    And because of a girl I knew
    who left school in the sixties, we still
    did that then, left, when we were pregnant.

    I saw her in a gallery, on a bench,
    below a Botero mother Superior, their shadows blending.
    Light from the same god of the bourgeoisie. A good pale
    lace-collar girl, clenched, in the nave-like gallery.
    And wanted to help her, but no. She with the look
    of one awaiting punishment, or two days by bus.
    Less frightened than grimly determined. She is gathering
    herself. She is a rebel about to be born. Until then, a Rose.

  8. I'm late, but I'm here:


  9. Thanks for this one, Khara.



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