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Turning Your Art into Poetry, Turning Poetry into Art

Portrait of Lucrezia de Medici by Agnolog Bronzino
"Portrait of Lucrezia de Medici" by Agnolog Bronzino

Literally for centuries, poets have found subjects for poems in the visual arts. Take, for example, two poets we all read in school, Robert Browning and John Keats. Browning begins "My Kast Duchess" with "That's my last duchess painted on the wall / looking as if she were alive," generally felt to have been inspired by Bronzino's portrait of Lucrezia de Medici.

Sosibios Vase
Sosibios Vase

Keats, on the other hand, actually traced an etching of the Sosibios vase before writing "Ode of a Grecian Urn," where he described. "What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about the shape / of dieties and mortals... "

But in our own time, the poet's use of subjects drawn from the art world has truly blossomed. Some paintings have become so famous for the poems they inspire, they could practically fill a book. Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" is one such example. Poets have often been attracted to Hopper because his paintings always seem to suggest a story and a certain mood, but with the details left out for the poet to fill in.

The poet always has the liberty to take off from the painting in any direction they wish. Canadian poet Anne Carson's own interpretation of "Nighthawk" is shown below, but the writer may create a narrative that imagines how the story might be told, fill in all the blanks, or the writer may imagine the creation of the artwork from the artist's point of view, bringing in details of the artist's life. Other poets might put themselves and their own life history into their "Nighthawks" poem. On different occasions the poet might simply take off from the colors, the shapes, or brushstrokes used and launch a poem from there. The point is that the possibilities are endless.

But what about going in the other direction, an artist who paints from his interpretation of a poem. This happens, but is not as widely talked about. Robert Frost's poems, for example, can readily lend themselves as subjects for paintings. Louise Fletcher, a British artist whose online workshop some of our members took, has created a series of abstract paintings inspired by landscape poems written by Ted Hughes.

The important take-away, though, is that cross-fertilizing our creative endeavors can have unexpected value. Translating yours or another's painting into words and language creates a deeper, more symbolic relationship to the artwork created. By the same token, paintings inspired by a text have to go through a part of the brain we may not use when we just paint from what we see. It has often been said that "poetry is painting in words." Carson has said: "I mostly think of my work [her poems] as a painting." There is deep connection that we don't often take advantage of. Try it, and see for yourself.


I wanted to run away with you tonight

but you are a difficult woman

the rules of you—

Past and future circle round us

now we know more now less

in the institute of shadows.

On the street black as widows

with nothing to confess

our distances found us

the rules of you—

so difficult a woman

I wanted to run away with you tonight.


About the Author:

Randy Spencer

Randy Spencer has been a member of CCAL for a half dozen years and has entered shows and won awards both through CCAL and other competitions, primarily in watercolor and photography.

He has an MFA in Poetry Composition from the University of South Carolina and has published several books of poetry which have included poems responding to the works of various visual artists. In the past he has taught poetry workshops for adults and adolescents.

Randy will soon be leading a special workshop designed for CCAL which will to lead you through how to try this for yourself!

Check it out and register online now while seats still remain!


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