Ekphrastic Poetry – responding to images

As part of the Year 9 unit on Imagining the World of Shaun Tan, and as preparation for NAPLAN, I introduced the form of ekphrastic poetry as one way to begin drafting a response to an image. This painting is one of a series large scale artworks by Shaun Tan that were originally exhibited in a group show whose title Go, Said The Bird (2015) was drawn from a poem by T.S. Eliot:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

I began with a simple definition from the Poetry Foundation Glossary, ekphrasis is defined as:

“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.

Students were then asked to examine the chosen image before reading the ‘artist statement’:

The sequence below forms a loose wordless narrative, moving from birth to death and rebirth, each painting featuring one species of bird that has learned to live successfully within human urban spaces, themes also explored in my book Tales from the Inner City. I’m particularly interested in the notion that birds’ perception and memory of space and time most likely differ radically from our own, and that such conceptions will likely prove more enduring that any human-made environment and memory. All of the landscapes are drawn from places I’ve lived within for extended periods, in Melbourne and Perth. Each painting is oil on canvas, between approximately 200 x 150cm. Some works have also been exhibited in Beinart Gallery, Warrnambool Art Gallery, Tinning Street Presents and 45 Downstairs, Melbourne.

Students looked closely at the painting and responded to the following questions to develop a word bank to use in their poems.

  1. How would you describe the colour palette: is it cool or warm, bright or dull?
  2. What about the composition: is it realistic or fantastical or a combination of both?
  3. what is the subject?
  4. Where is the subject located?
  5. What is happening in the image?
  6. What do you think the artist is trying to say?

Students then chose a line from the poem that they felt suited the image, then compose an ekphrastic poem. Students were reminded that their composition could be in a free verse style, meaning that it did not need to have a rhyme pattern of lines of the same length.

These ideas and exercises have been adapted from the Poetry Teatime blog Ekphrastic Poetry. This site also has examples of ekphrastic poetry.

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