Writing Poems off Paintings

Today I will join other local poets and poetesses (hilarious word!) at Le Petit Trianon where, after the Mission Chamber Orchestra concert, we will share the poems we wrote in response to the painter’s exhibition.  Reading the poems aloud is not the part that interests me. Writing an ekphrasis poem to Liyuza Eisbach’s paintings, an artist I do not know, was an interesting process.

The images I selected had a similar composition, with a main subject off slightly to one side in the foreground and then a play of light and texture creating a perspective of landscape or lightscape in the background.  To write to a painting required a great deal of looking at and into the painting, and I began to be curious about what the painter had in mind.  What was happening with the palette, with the line choices, and with the feel of this work?

In the same way a character in a book sometimes causes me to want to know the author, the two subjects in the paintings I chose to write to made me want to know the artist.  What kind of person is she?  What experience prompted this piece.  Is there any correspondence between what I feel when I look at this picture and what the painter may have felt?

I took one painting at a time. And, of course, in my general writing style, I placed a barrage of words all over the page of legal pad.  I found words for words and nerded out for awhile on phrases.  Gradually I began to write and revise and revise a piece with some thread of narrative in it.

The poem couldn’t simply be my view of the painting.  It had to have some life of it’s own and still be true to the painting.  This was challenging.

I’d leave the draft alone and come back another day.  Take some phrases out, write some new ones.  Now the painting was familiar and my words could be managed better, as if I had the palette knife or brush in hand.

And, as with a painting, there comes a point when the writer must not overwork it.  A painting becomes muddy when overworked and can fill up with small non essentials.

I let go of my worry of misrepresenting the painter and released the painting to stand on its own, which of course, it always did. And somehow the words I shaped on the page began to stand on their own.  It was an interesting way to write poetry.

It felt like the layers of reading a good novel, or the meld of experiences when I travel.


When I think in a primary palette

I sit on the blue brink

Of the next



When I rest in bright confidence,

My reveries turn

Into a yellow fractal



When I layer red textures

The portrait glows

Breathing in the



Red, yellow, and a bit of blue.


When I lean into a future sense

A new bit of blue

Draws me



When I think in a primary palette

Wearing a feather

In my cap

I muse.


Red, yellow, and a bit of blue.






And the other painting:


From red clay in green woods

To the water’s edge

This shore speaks to me of time.


Here is a paradox

Of celestial motion and

Still life.


Now the evening gleams

Suspended in water and sky.

Sunset seems eternal.


Who drew this rowboat

Upon the rock beach

Mooring it in the crunch of gravel?


Who left this empty shell?

The craft casts a long shadow

So I should be hiking back.


Do not tempt me to make

More metaphors.

I won’t worry about the tide.


I’ll skip aspirations too because

This is not an endless river.

I’m beached on a lake shore.


2 responses to “Writing Poems off Paintings”

  1. Thank you, Katie.


  2. Laura, I just love your ekphrastic poetry. Your writing always inspires!


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