"What is Ekphrasis?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is Ekphrasis? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Rebecca Olson, Oregon State University Associate Professor of British Literature

17 September 2020

If you have ever read a novel in which the narrator described a painting or a statue, you have experienced the narrative mode ekphrasis. The definition of ekphrasis has changed over time, but today we use it to mean “The verbal representation of visual representation” [see James Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (University of Chicago Press, 1993)].

Basically, an ekphrasis is a literary description of art. Like other kinds of imagery, ekphrasis paints a picture with words. What makes it different from something like pictorialism is that the picture it paints is itself a picture: ekphrasis stages an encounter between representations in two mediums, one visual and one verbal.

One of the oldest examples is Homer’s long description of Achilles’ shield in the epic The Iliad. Throughout that ekphrasis, the poet emphasizes the fact that the images described are images on a shield, and even calls attention to the god Hephaistos’ act of making that shield.

Modern poets often base their ekphrases on real works of art—works that you can see in life or look up on the internet. A good example is Victoria Chang’s “Edward Hopper Study: Hotel Room.” The title alerts us to the fact that the poem attends to a work by the painter Edward Hopper.

Many of the details in the poem – such as “in her hands, a yellow letter creased” and “her dress limp on a green chair”– seem to match up with the painting. We know the poem is ekphrastic when we get to this passage: “That is all the artist / left us with” – that makes it clear that the poet is engaging with an artistic representation. But the poem does not just catalogue the features of the painting. It also interprets the image, as we see from the very start: “While the man is away / telling his wife / about the red-corseted woman.” Etymologically ekphrasis means “to speak out,” and here the poet tells us what the painter leaves unsaid.

In poems like this one, the ekphrasis is the entire poem. Other times, as in The Iliad, ekphrasis is part of a longer work. In those cases, it’s important to remember that ekphrasis does not pause the story. It may halt the forward movement of the plot, giving the reader and/or characters a chance to process emotions or consider a different point of view, but that itself is an important part of the story.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Olson, Rebecca. "What is Ekphrasis?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 17 Sept. 2020, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-ekphrasis. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

One question to ask when considering ekphrasis is this: Does it matter if the reader is familiar with the representation described? Consider, for example, Monica Youn’s Stealing the Scream.
Writing Prompt #1:How important is it that reader of this poem be able to see Edvard Munch’s painting in their mind’s eye? How important is it that the reader know that it was, in fact, stolen in 1994? Is Youn describing the painting, speaking for the painting, or doing something else?
Writing Prompt #2: Try writing your own ekphrasis (it’s especially fun to do this with something in one’s own home or community, or even an image on one’s phone!). Would someone recognize your poem as ekphrasis? What is the relationship between the speaker of your ekphrasis and the work of art (if different)? How would you describe the overall theme, problem, or question at the heart of your ekphrasis, and why do you think it was provoked by this particular image?

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms