Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Ekphrasis: A Writing Exercise

As some of you will already know (because I keep harping on about it), I spent last week at a writing residential in North Wales. This is the second time that I’ve been to Ty Newydd, and neither occasion has disappointed. Each day was loosely structured to include a writing workshop in the morning, free time in the afternoon to write / read from the vast collection of poetry books in the library, and a reading / Q&A in the evening. I was inspired. I wrote a lot. Most of which is unusable, but there are a few pieces that contain faint flecks of potential – and, for me, that makes for a fairly successful week.

The piece that follows is a written version of what I took from Tuesday’s workshop on ekphrasis. I’d experienced this workshop before (last year in fact), but it has been an exercise that I have employed regularly when I’ve been stuck, or when I have found myself regressing back to my cryptic ways. This workshop was crucial to my development and learning in the first year of my MA, and enabled me to change my opaque poetry into something that was less difficult. I hope that you find it as useful as I have found it.

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The term “ekphrasis” derives from the Greek ek, “out of”, and phrasis, “speech” or “expression”. In poetry and literature it is used to describe a poem or a section of prose that translates or speaks of a piece of art; you have probably read many examples of ekphrasis without realising that you were reading an ekphrastic poem.

For example, John Keats’ poem ‘An Ode to a Grecian Urn’ uses an ancient artefact as a subject, allowing the speaker to address it directly, while also describing some of the pictures on the object’s surface. Keats used one form of art – a stimuli for inspiration – and translated it into another art form. However, it is also possible to construct an ekphrastic poem without a ‘real’ work of art (notional); Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ is an excellent example of this. The painting that the Duke of Ferrara addresses is not real outside of the poem; it has been imagined by Browning, enabling the Duke to plausibly speak to his dead wife as if she were alive and encouraging the reader to think of her as a real person.

In recent times, photographs have become a popular focus within poetry - and despite capturing a very specific and static moment, they offer a variety of directions and options. The poet needs to make decisions, and perhaps the most crucial decision is POV: who’s eyes will we see through? who will be the speaker in the poem? Personally, I think some of the most successful ekphrastic poems are those that do something interesting with POV. For example, in ‘I Go Back to May 1937’ sees the speaker (daughter) travelling back in time to her parents graduation day (the photograph), just prior to their marriage. She wants to warn them, “I want to go up to them and say Stop, / don’t do it – she’s the wrong woman, / he’s the wrong man”. Similarly, in ‘Long Exposure’ (Neil Rollinson) the use of POV is striking; the poem steps away from the photograph and hovers more generously on the photographer. However, the speaker is a further step away from the photographer, observing his movements and the process of taking a photo. The reader is never given an exact description of the final image; we’re left to imagine the results, only able to see what the twice-removed speaker is capable of seeing / describing to us.

The Poem & the Photograph: A writing exercise

1) Find a photograph. I like to open a book like A Year in Photography: Magnum Archive at a random page and then write. However, things like weekend newspaper supplements, old photo albums, or even a Google image search can offer countless photographs – and endless sources of inspiration.

2) Consider POV. The options here are as unrestricted as your imagination will allow. You could choose a speaker who is contained within the photograph: a person, an object, a shadow. Alternatively, you could decide that your speaker is external (outside of the photograph): the photographer, a bystander, or even (as demonstrated in the Sharon Olds’ poem above) a person’s experience on viewing a photograph.
The above list isn’t extensive, it’s more of a starting point to get you thinking about the importance of POV and voice, and the way in which it can greatly influence the subsequent direction of your poem.

3) Think outside the frame. Don’t allow yourself to be restricted by what is within the picture frame. Photographs have edges, boundaries, but our minds are without such parameters. You can fill in what the snapshot hasn’t captured; the scene around the edges, the scene in front of the photo.

4) Experiment with time. It can sometimes be interesting to shift time, hypothesise about what happened 30 seconds before or after the photograph was taken and imagine what the ‘new’ photo would have looked like. Equally, this can be exaggerated to include greater time gaps; you might like to work away from a specific moment in time towards a future time, asking: Where are these people now? Are they still alive? What happened to them? (See ‘Six Young Men’ by Ted Hughes)

Thank you for reading,



Lindsay said...

Thanks for this Lara, as you know I'm not confident with poetry and find these great for coming up with some ideas and getting stuff down on paper. Looking at your post we can see how much work you put into your poetry, how much writing you do to come up with your finished poems and yet you make it look so effortless :)

vicky ellis said...

Great job explaining the exercise so clearly. I've considered ekphrasis before but didn't quite know how to go about it. There are loads of ideas here to set me off. Thanks very much :)

Ashley R Lister said...


Is that what you were doing in Wales? No wonder you wanted to get snowed in.

Great exercise - and supported by a very interesting explanation.


Lara Clayton said...

Lindsay: I really hope it might help to spark an idea... Confidence is one of those tricky things in writing; I think it is helpful to be a little lacking in confidence, but not enough can be detrimental. It seems to be a very difficult balancing act, a game of Buckaroo that you sometimes win and often lose... It's something that I'm still struggling with.

Vicky: I hope that you get something productive out of the exercise. Like I said in my post, I think the key to making it work well is finding the right POV / voice. Let me know how you get on :)

Ash: Yes, this was pretty much all I did in Wales :) Workshops, writing time and readings everyday. It's like a writer's paradise.