Art To Poetry: a poetry challenge with Artlyst

Young Poets Network is delighted to team up with Artlyst, the UK’s leading art information website, to challenge you to write ekphrastic poems. What is an ekphrastic poem? Keep reading…

Banksy’s Homage to Basquiat at the Barbican, London. Photo: Paul Carter Robinson for Artlyst, 2019.

The challenge: write a poem or poems inspired by a work of visual art, which does not exceed 40 lines.

What is an ekphrastic poem?

In short, an ekphrastic poem is a poem which responds to a work of visual art in a vivid or dramatic way.

You might have come across ekphrastic poems before – from John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ to W. H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux-Arts’, ekphrastic poetry has given us some of the most celebrated poems in the English language. In each case, these poems are not just descriptions of the art, but a fresh insight into it, a new world, a stand-alone work of art that can be read even if you’ve never seen the poet’s inspiration.

 We’re working with Artlyst, the UK’s leading art information website, to inspire you to respond to visual art with your poetry. This Young Poets Network challenge is open to young people worldwide aged 11-17, but Artlyst is running a parallel adult Art To Poetry competition for those aged 18+. This is the world’s first international ekphrastic poetry competition, run in association with The Poetry Society. Find out more here! Whichever age category you fall into, the prompts on this page can inspire your ekphrastic entry to Art to Poetry.

Submit poems of up to 40 lines inspired by an artwork (this can be painting, sculpture, installation, visual art, performance, or video art). We particularly welcome responses to contemporary art. 

Photo taken outside on some wooden planked flooring. Two people walk past a giant, brightly decorated flower which leans to one side. The stem is green with yellow spots; the flower itself is pink with black spots on the outside and white with pink spots on the inside, with purple pollen in the centre.
Yayoi Kusama: Flowers That Bloom Tomorrow, Victoria Miro Gallery London. Photo: Paul Carter Robinson for Artlyst, 2019.

How to write an ekphrastic poem

There are lots of different ways to approach this challenge!

The first step is to find some art that you find interesting. Is there a picture on your wall that inspires you? Have you visited a museum or gallery and want to write a poem about something that you have seen? Lots of galleries include some of their artwork online. Try scrolling through Artlyst’s Instagram for inspiration, or check out some of Artlyst’s recommended exhibitions.

Remember, you can respond to any kind of visual art (including painting, sculpture, installation, visual art, performance and video art) so you might like to think more widely than what you might presume lives in an art gallery. To get you started, we’ve included some photos of artwork throughout this challenge. You might choose to respond to one of these if you get stuck, and they should also give you an idea of the range of art that’s out there, waiting for you to write about it.

Now, how will you respond to it? You could…

  • Write a poem in the voice of one of the people in the art. Who are they speaking to? Themselves? Someone else in the artwork? The artist? The person looking at the art? Or someone else entirely? It might be especially interesting to hear from someone who seems insignificant or a background character.
  • Tell the story of what happened before the moment captured in the art, or what happened next. Will someone run into the scene? Will the weather completely change? Or will it all
  • Write a poem from the perspective of the artist – before, during, or after the creation of the art. You could completely make up their voice, or you could do a bit of research into the artist’s process or life!
  • How does your chosen artwork make you feel? Write a poem inspired by the feeling and tone of the art. What kind of colours does the artist use? Does the art have a lot of movement in it, or does it feel very still? This kind of response can be a bit freer and doesn’t have to relate as closely to the source text.
  • Or describe the art in a vivid way – but remember that the best ekphrastic poems can be enjoyed without seeing the art. Make sure that your poem has something in it to captivate your reader – otherwise, they might think why bother reading this description when I can just go and look at the amazing artwork myself! One way in is to think about the question, how can you possibly convey experiencing your chosen artwork in words? This approach might take you into some experimental forms – perhaps poems with gaps, or concrete poems which rely on the visual dimension.

Of course, you can respond to your chosen artwork in any way you like – these are all just suggested ways in.

Jeff Koons’ Gazing Ball Series, Frieze Art Fair, London. Photo: Paul Carter Robinson for Artlyst, 2019.

A brief history of ekphrastic poetry

If you want a proper history of ekphrastic poetry, check out this really useful poets.org article. Here’s a really quick summary…

The word ‘ekphrasis’ is of Greek origin, so it’s no surprise to find that the tradition of ekphrastic poetry dates back to Ancient Greek days. Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey are full of ekphrastic moments, describing shields, tapestries and more. Here’s an extract from a famous bit from The Illiad, translated here by Alexander Pope, describing Achilles’ shield:

There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d…

Read on here. As you can see, originally ekphrasis tried to report to the reader what the art looked like. But ekphrastic poetry has gone through many more evolutions… probably the most famous ekphrastic poem in English is ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats. In the poem, Keats addresses the urn he is looking at as ‘thou’. Here are some of the most famous lines in it:

         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

At the start of the poem, Keats vividly describes the scenes painted on the urn, like Homer did – but he keeps thinking, and finishes on this meditation on time, ageing, art and beauty. Art will outlive the artists, he says. And then there’s a very mysterious comment about beauty and truth… Throughout the poem, Keats turns a number of questions round and round in his mind – just as you might turn an urn round to see the whole story. Keats’ questions are never-ending, just like the story on the urn. It’s so clever that he has chosen a round artwork to think about these endless questions in his poetry.

Since Keats, hundreds of poets have written ekphrastic poems. From Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Large Bad Picture’ to William Carlos Williams’ ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, Holly Singlehurst’s ‘Hiroshima, 1961’ to Clare Pollard’s ‘The Masterstroke’, Grace Nichols’ ‘Weeping Woman’ to Pascale Petit’s ‘What the Water Gave Me’, the English language is full of them.

We’ll end looking quickly at Pascale Petit’s work, as she’s a contemporary poet who writes lots of ekphrastic poetry. ‘What the Water Gave me’ is the title of a painting by Frida Kahlo, and also the title of one of Petit’s book and a series of poems within it. Read her poem ‘What the Water Gave Me (VI)’ here. It begins:

This is how it is at the end –
me lying in my bath
                                   while the waters break,
my skin glistening with amnion,
                                                 streaks of starlight.

Now (if you like!) look at Kahlo’s painting here.

In her poem, Petit uses lots of imagery that Kahlo uses (particularly the wedding dress that comes up later), but it works beautifully whether you know Kahlo’s work or not. You can read an article by Petit about how she wrote the book, and how she found ways of identifying with Kahlo, here. You might also find it interesting to read what has been said about Petit’s book, and how she has responded to Kahlo’s artwork through her poems:

Some are close interpretations of Kahlo’s work, while others are parallels or version homages where Petit draws on her experience as a visual artist to create alternative ‘paintings’ with words. More than just a verse biography, this collection explores how Kahlo transformed trauma into art after the artist’s near-fatal bus accident. Petit, with her vivid style, her feel for nature and her understanding of pain and redemption, fully inhabits Kahlo’s world. Each poem is an evocation of “how art works on the pain spectrum”, laced with splashes of ferocious colour.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo

So, how will you respond to this challenge?

Prizes

Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and Artlyst, and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and an Artlyst tote bag. The first, second and third prize winners will also receive £100, £50 and £25 in book tokens respectively. A selection of commended poets will also receive £10 book tokens.

This challenge will be judged by a panel including Frances Segelman (Lady Petchey) and Young Poets Network.

Frances Segelman (Lady Petchey) is an English sculptor and philanthropist. She is married to Sir Jack Petchey, founder of the Jack Petchey Foundation, which works with young people across London and Essex.

The awards are sponsored by Artlyst and Frances Segelman (Lady Petchey).

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged 11-17 based anywhere in the world. You must be aged 11-17 on the deadline of Monday 2 March 2020. Poets aged 18+ can enter the adult competition here.

You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it. Your poem must not exceed 40 lines (the line count excludes title, epigraph and the spaces between stanzas). Please include the name, artist and medium (i.e. sculpture/painting/photograph etc.) of the artwork(s) your poem(s) respond(s) to in your entry. You can also include the date the artwork was created, and any other details about it, if you think it will help the judges to identify the art. Poets who are shortlisted may be invited to send in their image before the final judging.

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with the subject line ‘Art to Poetry challenge’, along with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.).This data is used for statistical purposes and help us reach as wide an audience as possible. These anonymised statistics will be shared with our partner Artlyst.

If you are aged 11-12 on Monday 2 March 2020, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and Artlyst to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

This challenge and the adult award are made possible by Artlyst and Frances Segelman (Lady Petchey) in association with The Poetry Society.

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