Pictures and stories


Ekphrastic poetry. I could simply post this ‘Landscape with the fall of Icarus’ and then type out Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux arts’ and say: there you are; I rest my case. Job done. But despite its being a sunny afternoon I feel obliged to give you value for money. So, here we go; make yourself comfy. No need to take notes.

I’ve been pondering the business of painting (and sculpture) and their relationship with poetry ever since I was told that publishers don’t like the combination. Whether it’s true or not, it bothered me, just as did the remark of a poet friend that she didn’t usually like poems about pictures. Leave that ‘about’ for a moment. If not completely. It still makes me wonder what the problem might be. Frieda Hughes had no problem with finding voices for waxwork images. And then there was the splendid Tate gallery anthology ‘With a poet’s eye’  (first published 1986, and now, apparently, only available second-hand through Amazon)..full of stunning poems by the great and good of the poetry world of the 1980’s. Each wrote in response to (or about) a chosen image . My favourites are by U.A.Fanthorpe, George Mackay Brown, and Charles Causley…but it’s a tough call. I kept ….and keep….asking ‘what’s the problem?’ It certainly can’t be one of technology for publishers. Digital imaging got rid of that at a stroke. Maybe it’s a problem with copyrights. Someone might tell me.

I’ve sometimes wondered if me and my fellow English teachers could be partly responsible. I started teaching when there was a sort of stimulus/response approach to setting poetry writing tasks. Here’s a picture/sculpture/piece of music. Now, write a poem about it. No, I won’t tell you how.

I’d have thought this would have been given a death blow by Gareth Owen and his merciless poem ‘Miss Creedle teaches creative writing’ (in ‘Song of the city’ [Fontana Lions; 1985…another one out of print. What is it about books I like?]

‘This morning,’ cries Miss Creedle,

we’re all going to use our imaginations,

we’re going to close our eyes, 3W, and imagine.


here is a piece of music by Beethoven to help us.

Beethoven’s dates were 1770 to 1827.

(see the Age of Revolutions in your History books.)

Although Beethoven was deaf and a German

he wrote many wonderful symphonies,

but this was a long time before any of us was born.

Are you imagining a time before you were born?

What does it look like? Is it dark?’

And so it continues, quite wonderfully. But that was long ago. Before we were born. So why should I worry about this issue of art and poetry. Maybe because I might have gone to an art school rather than doing an English degree; fortunately I didn’t…I was never good enough…but it’s the visual image that is the key to my imaginative memory. And this is why I seemed unable to write anything but landscapes. And why I turned to ekphrastic poetry. There; I said I’d do it. I’d never heard or seen this ugly looking word till recently, though I discover there’s a magazine that’s devoted to it. It’s called, not unsurprisingly, EKPHRASIS. It also rejected the poems I submitted, so maybe I’m doing the wrong kind of ekphrasis. Or I’m not good enough. Anyway, it was ekphrasis I turned to when I was desperately trying to populate my poetry, and discover for myself that empathic imagination that’s at the heart of real poetry. There were writers who I turned to for help. George Macbeth, Jill Dawson, A.S.Byatt, Carole Ann Duffy…poets who could do ventriloquism, who could inhabit other voices and personalities, who wrote like dramatists. (I want to write about inspirations in another post, and three of these will feature prominently….another promise). I’ve said before that I can’t invent characters, otherwise I might write short stories, and at the time I was more than nervous about writing about people I knew. ‘The world’s wife’ and ‘Possession’ were the triggers; the art – and the characters -were supplied by John Waterhouse, Anthony Gormley, Elizabeth Frink and Michael Ayrton.



When you’re scratching around for a change of gear you’re sometimes handed a gift. Every morning as I walked from the car park in the grounds of Bretton Hall, where I worked as a lecturer, I passed/paused at Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I found it desperately sad and compelling, even in those lushly landscaped grounds. It was as though it carried the weight of its own labyrinth, and I wondered what nightmares gripped it, clenched and beaten down as it is. I tried to find a voice for it that wasn’t mine. I imagined, or tried to imagine, what it would be to be sealed in a dark labyrinth, or a labyrinth of mirrors where his own monstrosity was unavoidable, and which echoed to the voices of those sent as sacrifice.

What are they seeking here?

What dreams of white and soft

of slenderness pain me

what dreams of slightness,



I have no colour in my dark to shape them

words to order them


Well, I was struggling, but it was a start. And then I read ‘The world’s wife’ and saw straight off what a wonderful thing it would be to write a themed sequence, to write with a purpose. I thought I’d write lots of sculpture monologues, based on the conceit that certain sculptures imprison the souls of fallen angels and those of the transgressive. I wrote one about Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ (predictably enough) and gave him Miltonic blank verse to speak. Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated figure’ eventually turned out to imprison the soul of Rene Descartes. And then it stopped. For ten years or more, till last year, when a log jam burst with the help of a writing course with the impeccable Jane Draycott, and I wrote another dozen, including one for the Manchester Picadilly Queen Victoria, who, it turned out, spoke like Emily Dickinson, with lots of hyphens. As it happens, I’m not sure that I’ve met anyone who actually likes this hard-won sequence..apart from me.But I can’t say how important that thematic structure was. I think I recognised the same thing in Kim Moore’s new sequence of poems about domestic violence, and in Carrie Etter’s acclaimed ‘Imagined sons’. And Kim’s sequence also reminds me how liberating the discovery of some myths can her case, reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’ll come back to that in a minute. I promise I won’t go on much longer. Just a few thoughts about pictures.


I’ve always liked late Victorian paintings, especially John Waterhouse’s reverse ekphrasis.. that is, paintings of/about poems. The Lady of Shallott, La belle dame sans mercis, Isabella and the pot of basil. How those painters loved Keats and Tennyson and Shakespeare. But when you look at a lot of Waterhouse’s paintings, you realise that the same face appears again and again. There’s no proper authenticating documentation, but it’s reckoned that it’s the face of Miss Muriel Foster…that lovely sketch you’ve just looked at. And, probably, she first modelled for him when she was 15, and continued to do so till his death in 1916. And she was the daughter of a Quaker family, and she became a nurse. I’d just read A.S.Byatt’s Possession. And I was also struck by the fact that the daughters of respectable bourgeois Quakers didn’t normally pose nude. And that he only painted one portrait of his wife, Esther, who’d given up her own painting when she married. I thought how wonderful it would be if Byatt, or Jill Dawson turned it into a novel, this strange triangular affair. If that’s what it was. I spent a year researching it all. And wrote three poems. Three! One for each voice. I wondered how Miss Foster could come to pose as she did:

He asked if he might do a pencil sketch;

a simple head and shoulders;

he said my hair would grace ‘his mermaid’;

he told me a vision of combed silk,

of autumn-umber leaves against white skin,

a sea impossibly green and cold,

irridescent scales, warm flesh….

and it seemed that I could hear the mermaid’s song

and that I sang it.

So, suddenly, I said I’d sit for him. Unclothed.

That’s how things came to be. That first time.

I still don’t know what I make of it all. I know I was more comfortable finding a way into Waterhouse’s way of seeing, and what I thought must be his awkward propriety, his longing. And even happier with Esther’s anger at the whole affair, and at her one portrait.


.…this is how he sees me: brown , trowelled.

Where’s the sensitivity, the sables?

the gleam of subtly considered skin?

expensive pigments? translucent lakes?

this is plastering.

But at the end of the day, it all seemed to have been a dead end, and all very frustrating. A year of thinking and reading for three not very good poems that no-one much liked to tell me that they didn’t think much of. But I wouldn’t leave you with an unhappy ending. The point is, nothing’s wasted. I escaped from the cul de sac of Sunday watercolour landscapes, I invented voices for my fallen angels, and eventually I found I could write about and for people close to me, and even that, sometimes, a voice like that of Daedalus or Hephaestus tells me more about myself than I ever thought I could. And one more thing.  Writing about and out of paintings and sculptures can illuminate another poet’s writing. It took me back to Auden’s take on that Breughel landscape in new ways, and equally to Keats’ ‘On a Grecian Urn’. I’d never questioned the first. But then I wondered what it would mean if the artist had come to the viewpoint, say, 30 seconds later. And the second was something you did for ‘O’ level and couldn’t be questioned. It’s worth a look at the sketch Keats is supposed to have made of a porphyry urn.


Now, I’d never doubted Keats’ vision of a ‘still unravished bride of quietness’….and his asking ‘what maidens loth? what mad pursuit? what struggle to escape?’ But you learn to look closer. That ‘still unravished’ bothered me. Keats invented an urn to fit his own sensuous vision, coloured as it seems to me, with his own unconsummated longings. Think about that unravish’d bride, these madly-pursued ‘maidens loth’ (what a telling word it is, now, that ‘loth’). My poem  ‘Stasis’ came uninvited but felt..

What peace for a still-unravished child?

Like a hare, big-eyed with horror,

head dislocated backwards, electric

with adrenaline, all her self

shrunk to a concentrated

hyper-thyroid stare on what comes after,

blind to everything but one certain fear,

this child on a turning wheel…..

There’s no telling where myths and paintings and sculptures might take you. They helped me out of playing with words to no purpose. And even to writing poems about poems about paintings. There’s a thing. A new School. Meta-Ekphrastic Poetry. Open to applicants from tomorrow. No experience needed. Thank you for your time. Inspirations next week…won’t that be fun!




One thought on “Pictures and stories

  1. Some very interesting concepts here John. I’m very new to this poetry lark but I am enjoying it immensely. Yes you can write a poem about a landscape or a piece of sculpture. You can write a poem about anything you want and it is only poetic snobs that believe you cannot. As with any other artist it is the job of the poet or writer to give a different view of the subject they are writing about and to give the reader another view from which to look at it. By doing this something new could be revealed to the reader and writer about the object they are writing about. When I go out to write in the park or on the moors everything is a blank canvas and I fill it in slowly as I notice more and more detail of the world around me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.