How does a poet render a painting in words? What about a piece of music, a movie, or an interview? A news broadcast? A billboard? A captain’s log? Broadly defined, an ekphrastic poem describes another work of art. Here are ten ekphrastic poems that range widely in style and subject matter, written by twentieth-century poets (like Frank O’Hara and Robert Hayden) and poets writing now (like Aziza Barnes and Ocean Vuong). All are available for free download:
“Middle Passage,” Robert Hayden
Widely considered to be the most important poem to confront the Atlantic slave trade, the lines of “Middle Passage” engage with adaptations of ships’ logs, testimony, prayer, and song. The result is a visceral and harrowing lyric depiction of the cruelties of the slave trade, as well as instances of heroic resistance.
“When It Is Over It Will Be Over,” Paisley Rekdal
Beginning with a description of the pen and ink drawing by Troy Passey (which itself got its name from a line by Edna St. Vincent Millay), Rekdal’s poem follows the image of a spiral off of the canvas and into the bright, cold memory of a school of minnows.
“On Seeing Larry Rivers’ ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ at the Museum of Modern Art,” Frank O’Hara
In his poem, O’Hara disparages an historic American event with a mix of contempt and humor, poking holes in the notion of what it means to be a “hero,” and what it means to be American. He does this with a characteristic colloquial lyricism. You can take a look at Rivers’ painting here.
“Snow on the Apples,” Arda Collins
Composed of short, direct observations and thoughts, “Snow on the Apples” reads as a mostly-interior monologue about God and daily life. The intrusion of a description of a news segment partway through the poem introduces a dimension of gravity, to corrupt and commingle with the poem’s quiet familiarity.
“Aubade with Burning City,” Ocean Vuong
Vuong intersperses lyrics from Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” between lines that depict the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon. The poem’s epigraph tells us that the song was played over Armed Forces Radio as a code to begin the operation.
“Replica of ‘The Thinker’,” Matthew Olzmann
Olzmann engages with the question of what it means to be a replica, a son, a human instead of a bronze statue. What are the limits of what a person is capable of thinking? In engaging with this question, Olzmann sinks past the exteriority of the statue, only to arrive at a layer of fraudulence, falling just short of epiphany. Here’s a replica of The Thinker on the steps of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“Badu Interviews Lamar,” Camonghne Felix
Felix’s erasure of an interview between Kendrick Lamar and Erykah Badu casts Lamar’s words in a new light. Each word, divorced from its context, draws significance from the white space that surrounds it, and joins to form a poem that is both sparse and complex.
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” John Ashbery
The title poem in the poetry collection that won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” takes its name and subject from a 1524 painting by Francesco Mazzola, or Parmagianino. The poem’s description of the painting serves as as a jumping off point for exploring language, phenomenology, and the cartesian soul.
“Got Jesus?,” Aziza Barnes
“Got Jesus?” takes the sight of a religious billboard on a shooting range off the highway as an opportunity to talk about gun violence, the police state, and the different manifestations of religion in a person’s life. The poem serves as a reaction to the billboard’s question, and the response unfurls through an abrupt and poignant set of images, experiences, and further questions.
“Dinosaurs in the Hood,” Danez Smith
Smith’s poem describes a movie, inspired by Jurassic Park, that depicts real communities of “children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles.” The neighborhood aesthetic in the poem clashes humorously and surreally with pterodactyls and raptors. The poem’s weight rests in its insistence that this movie not fall victim to ethnic stereotypes, that it “can’t be a black movie,” “can’t be a metaphor/ for black people & extinction,” “can’t be about race.”
More poetry available for free PDF download: