Ekphrastic Evolutions by Sally Flint


When I look at a photograph of a painting by Gauguin, which hangs over my breakfast-table, the spectacle of tranquil Polynesian girls crowned with lilies gives me, I do not know why, religious ideas.

  -W. B. Yeats1

In the digital age, it seems unsurprising that online reproductions of artworks encourage an explosion of ekphrasis. Poets, poetry collections, and individual poems are connected to the Internet’s immediately accessible materials. Online publications have increased, and more and more pathways between digital resources are opening, linking language and historical research, image and text.

Ekphrastic poetry in response to reproductions of artworks (as opposed to original works) is not new. Before the Internet, Yeats’s religious ideas inspired by Gauguin’s “tranquil Polynesian girls” appear untainted by the fact that he is viewing a reproduction of the original painting and by any knowledge he has of Gauguin’s life. It is the iconography that provokes in Yeats an intensely personal response. Yeats’s ownership of the photograph of the painting, rather than restricting his thoughts, enables him to relive what he thinks and feels each time he sees the picture; through individual experience, he connects with the artwork. A modern version of that experience might be viewing a screensaver of Gauguin’s The Siesta.

The Internet allows a different methodology of understanding and alternative ways of looking; it encourages the poet to use sources outside the frame of the painting, by referring to such things as the vast amount of information about Gauguin available online.2 In conjunction with an image, or a screensaver, online information to sources such as artists’ biographies offers innovative, unexpected creative routes to follow.  For example, Pascale Petit brought together the ekphrastic book of poetry What the Water Gave Me, which explores the oeuvre of Frida Kahlo using her artwork and biographical information. 

In my academic research, I have investigated how paintings can embellish the poet’s palette and, in particular, how images of paintings produce different poems from the gallery experience. My research has influenced my own work. After studying a photograph of James Ward’s Gordale Scar3, I wrote this poem:  

Last Act

James Ward; Gordale Scar; © Tate 1878, Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) license

James Ward, Gordale Scar

What made the herd stampede into darkness,
a brand, a tag, a yellow straw moon?

Were they so disillusioned and dazzled
they applauded the jagged edge?

I could cry out for their snatched lives.
Jump into the theatre of their soft bellies.

I want to believe happiness swung from their tails.
I want to understand their falling smiles.

Why the audience laughs, like pleasured butchers,
at their bloodied, luminous eyes.4

After writing the poem, I visited the Tate Gallery. When I saw Ward’s painting in person, I discovered the photograph I originally looked at did not truly reveal the painting’s darkness, power, and enormity. Nor did the photograph reveal the smaller details to be found in the deer, the brook, and the hoofprints at the bottom of the gorge. Often, the scale, detail, and texture of a painting are lost when it is reproduced. However, not being able to experience the expanse and minutiae of a painting might liberate the poet to follow different creative pathways into and through her poem. In contrast to my experience, a poet visiting the Tate, upon scrutinizing the painting, might feel compelled to include these experiences in a poem, to be true or at least to give a nod to the painterly qualities and firsthand observations that sparked the poem. For example, the poet David Wright, in response to viewing the painting, embraced its size. His poem “James Ward’s ‘Gordale Scar'” begins: “It’s not a painting, but a celebration, / This canvas, which seems huger than the room / It broods in, pastoral, yet sybilline.”5

Author Interview: The Power of an Image to Sound and Resound

John Berger argues, in the tradition of Walter Benjamin, that when “the camera reproduces a painting it destroys the uniqueness of its image… its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings.”6 What can be gleaned from this research is that often “image evokes image.”7 While a reproduction of a painting can inspire a different response than if a work is viewed in the gallery, the writing still maintains a network of correspondences back to the original. The mystification that surrounds the painting, its history, and “the art of the past”8 remain ever present; the writing may or may not allude to the iconography of the original painting.

What holds true in all cases of successful ekphrasiswhether the poet is in a gallery, looking at a magazine, or searching online—is that the poet must in some way take ownership of the painting using his individual lens to find a point of entry, then open the doorway, imagine beyond the frame, and thereby find a new path for travel. As Berger writes: “When a painting is put to use, its meaning is either modified or totally changed.”9 An ekphrastic poem that moves beyond description may also be influenced by “transitory influences,” including current “emotional state, goals, intentions, motivation and […] expectancies.”10

Indeed, I used to think I could write a poem from any painting or online image, but I now know this is not the case. When an image inspires me to write, it has to stop me in my tracks or infiltrate my mind’s eye the same way I might be stunned by the sight of a person sleeping in a shop doorway, or a storm-ridden sky, or a spectacular view from a clifftop, or a memory of sunlight through a stained-glass window. What seems crucial is for a poet to find a spark of creativity in an image, a connectionthen a narrative develops. It does not matter whether the image is “authentic” or reproduced, nor does it matter where that inspiration leadsas long as an interesting poem erupts. In a maze of creation, the poet, like the painter, forges new paths.

Berger writes: “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”11 Maybe, in the case of ekphrastic poetry, when inspired by a reproduction of a painting above a breakfast table, in a book, or online, the continuing relationship between art, our imaginations, and personal experience is becoming an increasingly intriguing, mystical, and complex space to explore.



1. J.D. McClatchy, ed., Poets on Painters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 9-10.

2. Ibid.

3. James Ward, Gordale Scar, 1812-1814, oil paint on canvas, 3327 x 4216 mm, Tate Gallery Britain. Reproduced from Pat Adams, ed., With a Poet’s Eye (Tate Gallery Publications, 1986), 55.

4. Sally Flint, Pieces of Us (Kent: Worple Press, 2014), 58.

5. David Wright, “James Ward’s ‘Gordale Scar,’” With a Poet’s Eye (Tate Gallery Publications, 1986), 54.

6. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: The British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972), 19.

7. McClatchy, ed., Poets on Painters, xv.

8. Berger, Ways of Seeing, 33.

9. Ibid.

10. Peter Warr and Christopher Knapper, The Perception of People and Events (London: Wiley, 1968), 222.

11. Berger, Ways of Seeing, 9.

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