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April 20, 2016 Ekphrasis: Poetry About Art By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    You know those times when you hear a song so powerful you feel a little bit shivery? Or when you see a breathtaking photograph or painting that makes you feel something overwhelmingly strong? I love setting the scene for children to be deeply affected by art — and then giving them tools to turn those feelings into poetic inspiration. That’s what ekphrastic poetry is all about!  

    Ekphrasis is writing about any art form, but in its modern usage, ekphrasis generally refers to poetry that reflects on visual art, and most often painting. In my classroom, I often choose one or two artists for an in-depth study. Once my students are experts about the artists, they each choose a meaningful piece of work to inspire a poem. Are you interested in exposing your students to ekphrastic poetry? Read on for suggestions and resources to plan your own lessons.

     

    Mentor Poems

    There are many ways to write ekphrastic poems. Poets can describe the artwork, write about the feeling of the artwork, speak directly to the subject of the painting, etc. As a class, we begin by reading and analyzing several ekphrastic poems so my students become familiar with the possibilities of the form. Here are some resources to select ekphrastic poems to share with your students:

     

    Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art Edited by Jan Greenberg, Harry N. Abrams (appropriate for upper elementary students and above)

    National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar! Edited by J. Patrick Lewis

    The Poet Speaks of Art (website) A rich collection of ekphrastic poems based on paintings. The poems are not written for a child readership, so I use my teacher/editor’s license to abridge some of the poems to make them suitable for third graders. Some of my favorites to share with students:

     

    A Brief Artist Study

    Art history is important, even if it doesn’t make it into elementary school curriculum guides! Poetry is a great excuse to work in a brief (but possibly in-depth) study of an artist or two. I choose the artists based on available resources. Here in New York City, I first check if any of the local museums are featuring an artist that would work. I also consider if there is an artist who focused her work on a topic we’re studying for cross-curricular connections. And of course I make sure that there are books, articles, or webpages about the artist at an age appropriate reading level.

    In the past, my students have studied Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Tom Otterness, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Hopper, and Georgia O’Keefe.

     

    Choosing Art for Our Poems

    There are a couple of ways I’ve guided my students to choose an artwork to write about. Perhaps the simplest is to let them look online for images by the selected artist to pick out a favorite. But I think there’s value in holding a physical copy of the artwork rather than just viewing it on a screen. So I’ve often used postcard books of an artist’s works. (These cost about $6 and include 20–30 postcard reproductions on an artist’s work.) I lay all the postcards out and students each select a compelling artwork to write about. Another option is to print out a variety of images from the Internet and let students choose an artwork from among the printouts.

     

    For this project, pictured above, my students took photos of the sculptor Tom Otterness’s public art sculptures in the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue subway station. They used printouts of their photos to inspire their poems.

    A postcard reproduction of a Van Gogh painting accompanies Tyneshia's poem for a bulletin board display.

     

    Skip Rhyming With Free Verse Poems

    I usually leave the poetry writing very open-ended. I like to see how the students write their ekphrastic poems without the constraints of a format or specific assignment. I used to focus a lot of my poetry teaching on specific poetic forms, but I find that my students are even more creative and expressive when they are allowed to write freely. In part I was inspired by Regie Routman’s excellent book series, Kids Poems. She compellingly promotes free verse poetry. She writes:

    “The experience is quite different with free-verse, nonrhyming poetry. Here kids shine. Released from the structure of rhyme, kids can focus on content and language, and they express themselves easily. […] Their voice — each child’s unique and personal style — emerges. Kids who don’t like to write — for a whole host of reasons — write free-verse poetry with ease.” (from Kids' Poems: Grades 3 & 4, p. 5)

    For kids who are truly stuck, I provide open-ended prompts such as:

    • What might the subject or objects in the painting be thinking?

    • How does the artwork make you feel? Write about other things that make you feel that way.

    • Come up with a list of possible titles for the artwork. Turn your list into a poem.

     

    Publish and Share

    Ekphrastic poems make a great bulletin board display when you pair the artworks with the students’ poems. Often we create a class anthology with all of their ekphrastic poems in one book. The kids love when I photocopy the anthology so they can all bring home a copy to share with their families. Even more special, we’ve created “photobook” style anthologies using a photo printing service, such as this collection of ekphrastic poems about the artwork of Kandinsky and Klee. (For more info on creating photobooks of student writing, see my blog post "Publishing 'Real' Class Books in Four Steps.")

      

    (Click on any of the poems above to read my student's ekphrastic poetry.

     

    Ekphrastic Poetry Resources

    If you want to go a slightly different route from ekphrastic poetry, try this free descriptive writing project from Scholastic Printables. Symmetry and Poetry printable invites students to "write a poem using poetic devices, translate their writing into art, and present their work."

    Do you have favorite poetry lessons that you teach? Share you ideas or questions in the comments section below, or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook.

     

    You know those times when you hear a song so powerful you feel a little bit shivery? Or when you see a breathtaking photograph or painting that makes you feel something overwhelmingly strong? I love setting the scene for children to be deeply affected by art — and then giving them tools to turn those feelings into poetic inspiration. That’s what ekphrastic poetry is all about!  

    Ekphrasis is writing about any art form, but in its modern usage, ekphrasis generally refers to poetry that reflects on visual art, and most often painting. In my classroom, I often choose one or two artists for an in-depth study. Once my students are experts about the artists, they each choose a meaningful piece of work to inspire a poem. Are you interested in exposing your students to ekphrastic poetry? Read on for suggestions and resources to plan your own lessons.

     

    Mentor Poems

    There are many ways to write ekphrastic poems. Poets can describe the artwork, write about the feeling of the artwork, speak directly to the subject of the painting, etc. As a class, we begin by reading and analyzing several ekphrastic poems so my students become familiar with the possibilities of the form. Here are some resources to select ekphrastic poems to share with your students:

     

    Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art Edited by Jan Greenberg, Harry N. Abrams (appropriate for upper elementary students and above)

    National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar! Edited by J. Patrick Lewis

    The Poet Speaks of Art (website) A rich collection of ekphrastic poems based on paintings. The poems are not written for a child readership, so I use my teacher/editor’s license to abridge some of the poems to make them suitable for third graders. Some of my favorites to share with students:

     

    A Brief Artist Study

    Art history is important, even if it doesn’t make it into elementary school curriculum guides! Poetry is a great excuse to work in a brief (but possibly in-depth) study of an artist or two. I choose the artists based on available resources. Here in New York City, I first check if any of the local museums are featuring an artist that would work. I also consider if there is an artist who focused her work on a topic we’re studying for cross-curricular connections. And of course I make sure that there are books, articles, or webpages about the artist at an age appropriate reading level.

    In the past, my students have studied Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Tom Otterness, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Hopper, and Georgia O’Keefe.

     

    Choosing Art for Our Poems

    There are a couple of ways I’ve guided my students to choose an artwork to write about. Perhaps the simplest is to let them look online for images by the selected artist to pick out a favorite. But I think there’s value in holding a physical copy of the artwork rather than just viewing it on a screen. So I’ve often used postcard books of an artist’s works. (These cost about $6 and include 20–30 postcard reproductions on an artist’s work.) I lay all the postcards out and students each select a compelling artwork to write about. Another option is to print out a variety of images from the Internet and let students choose an artwork from among the printouts.

     

    For this project, pictured above, my students took photos of the sculptor Tom Otterness’s public art sculptures in the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue subway station. They used printouts of their photos to inspire their poems.

    A postcard reproduction of a Van Gogh painting accompanies Tyneshia's poem for a bulletin board display.

     

    Skip Rhyming With Free Verse Poems

    I usually leave the poetry writing very open-ended. I like to see how the students write their ekphrastic poems without the constraints of a format or specific assignment. I used to focus a lot of my poetry teaching on specific poetic forms, but I find that my students are even more creative and expressive when they are allowed to write freely. In part I was inspired by Regie Routman’s excellent book series, Kids Poems. She compellingly promotes free verse poetry. She writes:

    “The experience is quite different with free-verse, nonrhyming poetry. Here kids shine. Released from the structure of rhyme, kids can focus on content and language, and they express themselves easily. […] Their voice — each child’s unique and personal style — emerges. Kids who don’t like to write — for a whole host of reasons — write free-verse poetry with ease.” (from Kids' Poems: Grades 3 & 4, p. 5)

    For kids who are truly stuck, I provide open-ended prompts such as:

    • What might the subject or objects in the painting be thinking?

    • How does the artwork make you feel? Write about other things that make you feel that way.

    • Come up with a list of possible titles for the artwork. Turn your list into a poem.

     

    Publish and Share

    Ekphrastic poems make a great bulletin board display when you pair the artworks with the students’ poems. Often we create a class anthology with all of their ekphrastic poems in one book. The kids love when I photocopy the anthology so they can all bring home a copy to share with their families. Even more special, we’ve created “photobook” style anthologies using a photo printing service, such as this collection of ekphrastic poems about the artwork of Kandinsky and Klee. (For more info on creating photobooks of student writing, see my blog post "Publishing 'Real' Class Books in Four Steps.")

      

    (Click on any of the poems above to read my student's ekphrastic poetry.

     

    Ekphrastic Poetry Resources

    If you want to go a slightly different route from ekphrastic poetry, try this free descriptive writing project from Scholastic Printables. Symmetry and Poetry printable invites students to "write a poem using poetic devices, translate their writing into art, and present their work."

    Do you have favorite poetry lessons that you teach? Share you ideas or questions in the comments section below, or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook.

     

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