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

Review of Miami Morning by Steve Lindahl

Miami Morning by Mary Clark is the story of an ordinary person, a teacher, Leila Payson, who finds a purpose that defines her life. The novel is exceptional in a number of areas, one of which is the beautiful way Clark describes Miami from the context of the issues on the narrator’s mind. Here’s an excerpt that is a good example of what I mean:

She trotted beside lacy borders of waves washing ashore, intoxicated by the sharp scent of iodine and mineral aroma of fresh-churned sand. The rolling waves made her think of the invisible waves that traveled between human beings and while the ocean waves were strong and substantial, and still carried an insistent power as they neared the shore, they were nothing compared to the magnificent intricacies and complexity of human interaction and communication. And we are only just beginning to learn how that works, Leila reminded herself.

When Leila started her career, she had her struggles. But she took advice that she needed and she grew from experience. By the time the story starts, she is considered one of the best teachers in her school by the critics who matter most, her students.

Read more on Steve Lindahl’s blog

Without Risk There Is No Art

My Review of A House Near Luccoli by D. M. Denton, published by All Things That Matter Press

The author’s style takes the conventional and then begins the deconstruction, the rearrangements, to bring us into the reality of Alessandro Stradella, a gifted Baroque composer and musician. This deconstruction and rearranging is what an artist does. Rather than imitate reality, he selects what is important to him, and abstracts what is essential to achieve a new reality. People, relationships, emotions and ideas are put through this process of reordering. The artist abstracts what is vital and compelling, and releases it as a living thing.

From the moment of inspiration until the intuitive flow has ceased, expression is more important than communication. For this reason, an artist often is not very good at personal relationships. So it is with Alessandro Stradella.

The book explores the ways in which passion can order and disorder an artist’s creativity, and drive even a repressed and unadventurous person to experiment. Stradella’s behavior is a form of rebellion against the power that the elite have over artists in his day. His music is filled with pure notes, a sharp contrast to a corrupt world that tempts him.

When he deconstructs one of the powerful, his risky behavior is a direct threat, not a concerto that can be interpreted and dismissed with a smile. Rearranging and abstracting, done clumsily, appear to be a form of imitation known as mockery. Stradella takes this beyond the stage and written page and pays a heavy price.

Without risk there is no art, only craftsmanship. There are beautiful sentences in this book that would not have been possible without the experimentation that preceded them. A House Near Luccoli tears away at the borders of convention, just as Stradella did in his life.

It may be irrelevant to think in terms of success and failure when it comes to any artistic endeavor, since all efforts contribute to the artist’s journey, and there is always difference of opinion on what has succeeded and what has not. But there are times when the artist and the audience know the effort has not reached the desire outcome, when the intuition has moved in another direction and the work continued at a less inspired and more conceptualized level. In this book, Denton has often remained true to her intuition. Some sentences soar, while many loop out into variations on a theme, as music does, with results that are satisfying, or disconcerting, and oddly, often both. This baroque writing style adeptly embodies the times and the musician/composer who inhabits the story.

This review is also posted on Amazon and Goodreads.