Writing Examples

Ekphrasis Writing Examples

Below, you will find some examples of Ekphrastic writing about well-known works of art. Although Ekphrasis is usually a word describing poetry written about art, you may write in any form you’d like.

Thank you to Professor Angela Hebert for providing the examples.

Mourning Picture (main picture), Edwin Romanzo Elmer, 1890

The little-known American artist Edwin Ramanzo Elmer painted this strange and arresting work after the death from appendicitis of his 9-year-old daughter Effie. Here she is portrayed with her pet lamb and kitten, against the clapboard house her father built in Western Massachusetts. The remote and rigid figures of the artist and his wife appear in mourning clothes, though the painting was only given its title decades later, and not by the artist. The narrative voice in Adrienne Rich’s poem belongs to the dead Effie, the couple’s only child. Hauntingly, she compares the veins of the lilac leaf to her father’s “grief-tranced hand”. Rich's poem is an example of ekphrasis which according to the Poetry Foundation website is "description in Greek. 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."

Mourning Picture, Adrienne Rich (1965)

They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rocker

out under the lilac bush,

and my father and mother darkly sit there, in black clothes.

Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill,

my doll lies in her wicker pram

gazing at western Massachusetts.

This was our world.

I could remake each shaft of grass

feeling its rasp on my fingers,

draw out the map of every lilac leaf

or the net of veins on my father's

grief-tranced hand.

Out of my head, half-bursting,

still filling, the dream condenses--

shadows, crystals, ceilings, meadows, globes of dew.

Under the dull green of the lilacs, out in the light

carving each spoke of the pram, the turned porch-pillars,

under high early-summer clouds,

I am Effie, visible and invisible,

remembering and remembered.

Below are the first four cantos of a poem that extends by a further 29. Stevens’ rigorous and brilliant poem ponders the nature of reality and the quest of artists to profoundly alter it. “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar,” we are told in the first canto, and the refrain “things as they are” echoes like a recurring motif in a piece of music. Stevens was hugely influenced by the work of Modernist artists who flattened and fragmented pictorial space. His blue guitarist is a “shearsman of sorts”.

The Man with the Blue Guitar, Wallace Stevens (1937)


The man bent over his guitar,

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are.”


I cannot bring a world quite round,

Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye

And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can

And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man

Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade

Of a man that plays a blue guitar.


Ah, but to play man number one,

To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board

And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,

Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,

To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang if form a savage blue,

Jangling the metal of the strings…


So that’s life, then: things as they are?

It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?

And all their manner in the thing

And all their manner, right and wrong,

And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,

Like a buzzing of flies in the autumn air,

And that’s life, then: things as they are,

This bussing of the blue guitar.

Van Gogh’s painting conveys both a sense of furious motion and an atmosphere of serenity: stars radiate in a turbulent sky, yet the town below, whose existence Sexton negates in the first line, appears calm and empty. Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974, longs for the oblivion of death, as if death were but to disappear “into that rushing beast of night / sucked up by that great green dragon”. The poem is not so much a howl of pain, but rather an urgent expression of an all-consuming desire – the irrepressible desire to be overpowered by a force greater than oneself.

The Starry Night, Anne Sexton (1961)

The town does not exist

except where one black-haired tree slips

up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.

Oh starry starry night! This is how

I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.

Even the moon bulges in its orange irons

to push children, like a god, from its eye.

The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.

Oh starry starry night! This is how

I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,

sucked up by that great dragon, to split

from my life with no flag,

no belly,

no cry.