EDITORIAL FEATURE

7 Poems About Famous Artworks

Where painting meets poetry

Poets have been inspired by works of art for centuries, if not millennia. The art of writing poetry about paintings is known as ekphrasis – which basically just means a verbal description of a visual work of art, whether it's real or imaginary.

Here we collect together 7 beautiful and moving poetry quotes, alongside the famous artworks that they take as their subject or inspiration.

1. Auden on Bruegel

“In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure"

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (From the collection of Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

"...the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water,"

"...and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

– 'Musée des Beaux Arts', W. H. Auden

2. Sexton on Van Gogh

"The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky."

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh (From the collection of MoMA The Museum of Modern Art)

"...The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die."

– 'The Starry Night', Anne Sexton

3. Hughes on Reiss

"They send me to eat in the Kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table."

– 'I am the darker brother,' Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, c. 1925, Winold Reiss (From the collection of Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery)

4. Ginsberg on Cezanne

"In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.
But that meeting place
isn't represented;
it doesn't occur on the canvas."

The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L'Estaque, c. 1885, Paul Cézanne (From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)

"...For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.
And the immense water of L'Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats."

– 'Cezanne's Ports', Allen Ginsberg

5. Finkel on Hokusai

"It is because the sea is blue,
Because Fuji is blue, because the bent blue
Men have white faces, like the snow
On Fuji, like the crest of the wave in the sky the color of their
Boats."

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Tokyo National Museum)

"...It is because the air
Is full of writing, because the wave is still: that nothing
Will harm these frail strangers,
That high over Fuji in an earthcolored sky the fingers
Will not fall; and the blue men
Lean on the sea like snow, and the wave like a mountain leans
Against the sky."

– 'The Great Wave: Hokusai', Donald Finkel

6. Youn on Munch

"It was hardly a high-tech operation, stealing The Scream.
That we know for certain, and what was left behind--
a store-bought ladder, a broken window,
and fifty-one seconds of videotape, abstract as an overture.

And the rest? We don’t know. But we can envision
moonlight coming in through the broken window,
casting a bright shape over everything--the paintings,
the floor tiles, the velvet ropes: a single, sharp-edged pattern;

the figure’s fixed hysteria rendered suddenly ironic
by the fact of something happening; houses
clapping a thousand shingle hands to shocked cheeks
along the road from Oslo to Asgardstrand;"

The Scream, 1910, Edvard Munch (From the collection of The Munch Museum, Oslo)

"...the guards rushing in--too late!--greeted only
by the gap-toothed smirk of the museum walls;
and dangling from the picture wire like a baited hook,
a postcard: “Thanks for the poor security.”

The policemen, lost as tourists, stand whispering
in the galleries: ". . .but what does it all mean?”
Someone has the answers, someone who, grasping the frame,
saw his sun-red face reflected in that familiar boiling sky."

– 'Stealing The Scream', Monica Youn

And ekphrasis isn't just limited to paintings; it can be about any visual image, including photography...

7. George the Poet on Paul Graham

Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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