Ekphrasis in Reverse

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In class, we touched a little upon ekphrastic poetry, or poetry that vividly describes art. One thing some people were wondering about was the “direction” of the problem, that is, why poets write about painters but painters don’t depict poems.

But William Carlos Williams actually provides us of an example of what a painter depicting a poem looks like. His friend Charles Demuth painted “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” based on Williams’s “The Great Figure.” Below is the poem, then the painting.

“The Great Figure”

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
“I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold”
This got me thinking that in a way Bruegel’s depiction is also an example of so-called reverse ekphrasis. We only know about the myth of Icarus because of Ovid/other Greek and Latin poets. What Bruegel was depicting, then–and transforming into his own artistic vision–was poetry.

2 thoughts on “Ekphrasis in Reverse

  1. Joseph- This is a very interesting post! I particularly enjoyed the fact that you included the image of the painting along with the poem. For most of this class we have been talking about ekphrastic poetry as poetry written about a piece of art, but we forget to think about all of the art pieces that were trying to depict older poetry and other written works. For instance, there are countless depictions of biblical scenes in the art world, with Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” being among the more famous in my opinion. Seeing the more modern version of this text-to-paint transformation that you provided reminds me that there are other ways to look at poetry other than as just words on a page. Whether a poem is transformed into a painting, a song, or another kind of art, artists gather inspiration from one another to add new nuances to their work. I believe we are going to be reading another poem later on in the week that describes Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” and I am sure I will be thinking about all this information as I read that poem.

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