To write a poem is to explore the unknown capacities of the mind and the heart; it is emotive, empathetic exercise and, like being struck by lightning, it will probably leave you stunned, singed, but also a bit brighter. (Young 1)
Dean Young’s quote from The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction suggests a poet has the ability to bring vitality to life experiences by startling the mind and senses into a deeper reflection. How appropriate then to take the classic tale of animating life, Frankenstein, and try to reanimate it, breathe new life into it, through a poetry-writing workshop. And, with a flourish that Romantic poets would appreciate, spark this poetic process by viewing artwork and describing sensory and emotional reactions to the art, thereby enhancing comprehension of themes and the emotive and psychological drama of Frankenstein.
Combining art viewing with writing, an ekphrastic process, is a “vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning” (Poetry Foundation). An example of Romantic ekphrastic poetry would be “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” in which describing the figures on the urn becomes a jumping off point for John Keats to ruminate that the scene of pipes and timbrels, maidens and gods, is a “cold Pastoral” that will outlast man (Keats). This joining of reading, viewing artwork, and writing becomes a triple strength:
- Slowing down to look closely at both text and artworks
- Identifying imagery that has special meaning
- Describing that meaning through figurative language
Incorporating writing as a pre-reading strategy to deepen analysis is supported by research of Tierney and Shanahan, who conclude that “writing, together with reading, prompted more thoughtful consideration of ideas than writing alone,” and the combination of writing and reading is “more likely to induce learners to be more engaged” (cited in Smith 24-25).
Taking up the challenge to ignite high school students’ poetic muse with encounters of art, I collaborated with two high school English teachers, Patrick Connolly and Jennifer Smith, and a poet and creative writing teacher, Kyle Martindale, to create an Ekphrasis Writing Workshop. The process included the following:
- Gathering art images (sources included Web Gallery of Art, Britannica Image Quest, Artstor, and National Institute of Health—view Bibliography of Images)
- Preparing students with a Mary Shelly webquest
- Modeling the ekphrastic approach during the writing workshop led by Kyle Martindale
These samples of student poems, paired with artworks that inspired them, illustrate how students gave a voice to Frankenstein, the “mad creator,” and the Monster, his tortured creation.
(Hamman, Edouard. Andreas Vesalius. 1848. National Library of Medicine. Bethseda. Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. NIH. 9 July 2015. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.)
Poem by Jeffrey
In one hand, I felt the warmness
Of the yellow skin.
But in the other, I felt the coldness
Of the skull.
My left hand was filled with hope,
And my right hand was filled with death.
I am great and full of Knowledge.
It is shown in my book of Creation.
I stare upon the Crucifix and laugh.
He was said to be so great
And the Son of God.
But I hold his brother in my left arm.
I created him.
Therefore, I am God.
(Beatrizet, Nicholas. Progressive Dissection of a Standing Man. 1560. Anitomia del Corpo Humano. National Library of Medicine. Bethseda. Historical Anatomies on the Web. NIH. 5 June 2012. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.)
Poem by Julie
Enclosed by another’s misery,
I dangle loosely by a thread,
Left to wonder how much
I would give to be dead,
Escaping my own despair.
My disfigurement only makes my pain
Stronger am I because of how I was structured?
Leaving me nothing but a brain to wonder.
Is my imagination even my own
Or the man before me
Perhaps the man who laid the foundation
Of my being?
My thoughts aren’t my thoughts,
My words aren’t my words,
My everything is another man’s nothing.
I am bound by a wild desire to cure
My illness inflicted by another.
It is as though I am captive to
His own predetermined mutations,
That is why I am disfigured and dangling—
Enclosed by another’s misery.
As a librarian who has a passion for words and a background in Fine Arts, I encountered powerful connections between words and images in assembling artwork for the workshop: artists’ deliberate choices of design elements (color, shape, texture, space, etc.) have parallels in writing. One student in the workshop described poetry as “compressed language,” and artworks have similar multiple layers to communicate meaning. One way to expand the ekphrastic writing experience would be a class trip to an art gallery to view the artworks and create poetic reflections. Also, exhibiting student writing alongside the artworks that inspired them would be a thought-provoking way to show the interaction of word and image. In February, at our library-sponsored Writers Café, students will read a selection of these poems accompanied by slides of the artworks.
This workshop was an opportunity for students to enliven their senses and stir up thoughts as they connected to an artwork and dramatized the experience, while also deepening insights into the emotive and psychological dimensions of Frankenstein. Through a deliberate choice of words and imagery, both the original artwork and the newly created poem became supercharged in the experience as students created an expanded dialogue of images and ideas. Poet and scientist Jacob Bronowski said, “There is no picture and no poem unless you yourself enter it and fill it out” (cited in Moorman 46). Students took the challenge to enter into the dialogue with art, and they filled the conversation with memorable ekphrastic poetry.
Keats, John. “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” 1820. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.
Moorman, Honor. “Backing into Ekphrasis: Reading and Writing Poetry about Visual Art.” English Journal 96.1 (2006): 46-53. PDF file.
Smith, Jennifer. Creative Writing for Empowered Reading. Nashville: Aquinas College, 2015. Print.
Young, Dean. The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction. Minneapolis: Grey Wolf, 2010. Print.
Wow! Thank you for sharing this powerful project! Here at Gordon, I have often taught poetry to fourth and fifth graders inspired by natural objects or their own bodies but your project is perfectly haunting for older students! Love it!
Thanks Suzanne. The poet/educator Kyle Martindale did a wonderful job modeling the Ekphrasis process for students and sharing one of his own poems, describing its evolution from the artwork that inspired it. Another AISL librarian e-mailed me that this writing event would be a good match for schools that have Writing Centers.
Definitely possibilities across all grade levels, as your own writing project suggests.
Wishing you continued success in sharing creative writing with your students.