Ekphrastic Poetry: Photos inspire Poems

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. Source: Poetry Foundation

American Daguerreotype: Ekphrastic Poems by James Penha

James Penha has penned a narrative that explores American character in the mid-1800s, a turbulent and pivotal time when new technologies of photography and communication revolutionized how we saw ourselves and shared information. He choses his subjects from a spectrum of income, education, and status of freedom. Writers Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson, artist James McNeil Whistler, anti-slave activists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, are accompanied by a slave named Caesar (three poems spanning a century), a man whittling, a group of school children, and several others. Each daguerreotype has been given proper attribution, with its date, if known. And for each subject there is historical material, including writings by Poe, Hawthorne, and Douglass on the advent of the new technology. Douglass said, “Morse has brought the ends of the Earth together, and Daguerre has made it a picture gallery.” (“Pictures and Progress”, 1864)

In the poem accompanying Douglass’s portrait from the 1840s showing him looking to one side and gazing down, Penha writes:

... he looks aside of it, demanding
that we recollect and admire
his naked bondage 
but with eyes as well on the verge 
not merely of the mountain top 
but the view from its apex, vast and glorious expanse…

The poem ends with:

These miraculous pictures 
will be clasped, he knows 
in frames of truth and lies.

Edgar Allen Poe’s photograph was taken by an unknown artist, late May or early June 1849. Poe said of the new medium: “For, in truth, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely (we use the term advisedly) is infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hand. … The results of the invention cannot, even remotely, be seen – but all experience in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely. It is a theorem almost demonstrated, that the consequences of any new scientific invention will, at the present day exceed, by very much, the wildest expectations of the most imaginative.” Poe, “The Daguerreotype,” Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, 15 January 1840.

Penha imagines Poe realizing the camera’s power as the photo is being taken, as he bends to the left as if to escape being captured “accurately, infinitely…”

One of my favorites is the poem accompanying Henry David Thoreau’s photograph, taken in 1856 by Benjamin D. Maxham. In his poem, Penha notes the tousled hair, “so uncivil, So thoroughly disobedient, we must wonder if he tousled it on purpose for posterity.” The ending again, as with many of these poems, is excellent. (No spoiler.)

National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most telling is the self-portrait by Robert Cornelius, believed to be earliest extant American portrait photo, circa 1839. The first “Selfie” evokes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call to the ordinary man, to the “gleam of light” in each of us. Cornelius stares directly at the camera, daring the new power to echo his own. 

Grief Songs by Elizabeth Gauffreau

In a series of poems, Liz Gauffreau chronicles her family’s history, providing photographs that often both reveal and hide the truth. Her brother’s carefree teenage stance, posed family portraits, moments captured at gatherings, show life’s vivid impressions, but the poems inform us of the mischief, tantrums, and long-lasting bonds. The poems, in tanka format, add to the senses: sound, smell, taste, feel.

clam bake on the beach
driftwood fire crackles, smokes
Michael row the boat
Mummy sings, guitar strumming
five hundred miles from our home

In one she remembers a picnic on a beach, but years later she is the only survivor of that family scene. These poems and photographs mirror the resilience needed to move beyond grief to full appreciation of those we love.

Please also visit Annika Perry’s blog for her review.

Recently, I’ve been doing a photographic study of a bench outside my apartment building. Here’s one with an accompanying haiku.

Natural patterns
circle and bind, bonding us
and frees the world's grace

3 thoughts on “Ekphrastic Poetry: Photos inspire Poems

  1. Mary, your powerful and informative post about the ekphrastic poetry within James Penha’s book is compelling and at times feel epic in the scope of the themes explored. I loved your review of Grief Songs and thank you for sharing the link to my review – I really appreciate it! Finally, a thought-provoking and timeless poem by yourself in response to the haunting image. Brilliant!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Annika. A lot of good work is being done in the world, and I’m glad whenever I find it and can share it. That image in the photo was a one-time occurrence. I haven’t seen the snow and wind make that pattern since. When I saw it outside my window I had to take the photo!

      Liked by 1 person

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