By turning a poem into a visual image you gain a whole new perspective on what it is you are creating with words.
Recently, I conducted a poetry workshop in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, on the theme of poetry and art. I believe the processes of writing and painting are symbiotic, and a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas will occur spontaneously when you engage in both forms of expression.
This will work whether you do it deliberately and consciously, or if you simply vary the two activities as part of your normal routine. My own personal method is to write and paint on alternate days of the week, and I occasionally create poems based on my artwork.
Paintings have long inspired poets, and in fact an entire branch of poetry is dedicated to that subject. Ekphrasis, a Greek word, literally meaning “out of speech,” is widely used to indicate poetry written about art. A long passage describing Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of Homer’s "Iliad" is considered to be the first example of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis also occurs in Virgil’s "Aeneid," Dante's "Purgatorio," and Spenser's "The Faerie Queen."
Wanting to try a slightly different approach, I asked the participants, who were artists, to turn one of their own paintings into a poem.
This process can work in reverse, meaning a poet can better understand what he is attempting to express in a poem if he transforms it into a drawing or painting. It is not a big leap from words to a picture since most good poetry contains visual imagery.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Japanese haiku, which is primarily composed of essential images. Let’s look at one exemplary illustration from the poet Moritake: “The falling flower/I saw drift back to the branch/Was a butterfly.” Would it not be enjoyable to apply these images in a straightforward manner as a watercolor painting or a drawing? Consider the delicacy and sensitivity with which it could be rendered, and just imagine how it would help you to experience the poem in greater detail and with vivid energy.
By turning a poem into a visual image you gain a whole new perspective on what it is you are creating with words. You can go much further and deeper than a simple transference of word images to visual images.
One of the students in my workshop worked on a painting of warm flowers and cool interior called “You Never Know What’s Hiding.” She told me she wanted to explore on a deeper level her idea for the painting. I suggested she consider the contrasting colors, the tension between warm and cool, orange and blues. What did that signify?
Good poetry contains a similar tension in ideas, moods, feelings, among other things. So you can begin by identifying the dynamic of the poem, locate its major source of tension and then work on translating that into abstract colors or a pencil drawing. Who is the poem’s subject or speaker? Draw his or her portrait. Is it a narrative poem? Do a series of drawings to tell the story in images. What is the context of the poem? Sketch the place with as much detail as you like.
You don’t have to be a trained or skilled visual artist to make use of this exercise. A basic aptitude for conceiving of a picture with your imagination will be sufficient to make a rough sketch or a finished painting, and doing either one or the other will assist you in this endeavor of looking with your spirit at the world around and within you.
A.S. Maulucci’s first 35 poetry columns are now available as an e-book titled “On Poetry: The Mysterious Art” from Lorenzo Press (www.lorenzopress.com) for $9.95. For details and ordering information, e-mail email@example.com