When a poem is written like a telegram addressing a painting…

I am putting it on my agenda to feed the mind everyday with things of beauty, insightful words, and objects that inspire thought. It is an informal resolution for 2020, which so far has gone reasonably well.

Recently, I read Sharon Olds’ Poem in the Form of a Telegram to Someone Looking at Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy the article on MOMA’s magazine combined poetry and art. These poems are called ekphrastic poems. When poems talk about an art object – think about Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess or WH Auden’s meditation on Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus

The word ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times, it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience.

The Milkmaid (Vermeer) 1657–1658


Wislawa Szymborska
So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

Sharon Olds

What engaged me most in this article is its reflection on looking. Olds says, “And I thought, well I’m glad I didn’t think it would be cool to have some tricky thing like “stop” at the end of the poem because I like the sense that once we’ve looked at a painting the looking doesn’t stop—it stays within us.” I had dwelled on this aspect previously, wondering: “after all the most controversial part was us in the museum – LOOKING in – LOOKING at – LOOKING for.”

Do read the poem and look at the painting to think about what you would look at during the process observing?

I got lost in the colorful folds of her dress. The material matching her pillow. Maybe a roll of cloth bought from the market, hand stitched. The strikingly pink of her toenails contrasting with her dark feet and that blue sky, such beautiful hues. What did you see?

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