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Prompt 166. Exposed, Beautiful, Sublime
On Georgia O'Keeffe and writing about art
Last Friday, while I was still in Paris, I had recovered enough to get out and about with my partner Jon. We went to Saint Sulpice Church, which was stunning and solemn and where I lit votive candles for beloved friends I’ve lost. We also took a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens, where several hundred people, from young children to centenarians, had gathered for a sing-along. It was so earnest, so joyful, and tickled us to no end.
After that, as the sun began to set, we went to the Centre Pompidou to see the first solo exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work in France. It had everything, from the flowers to the bones to the cityscapes, and the paintings were absolutely radiant. A few in particular looked like they were glowing, so much so that we wondered if they were lit from behind. They weren’t of course, just painted in the blazing glory of full desert sun: exposed and beautiful and sublime.
The entire day was a reminder of how full I feel after being out in the world, noticing the various ways it is imbued with beauty. One of my favorite things to do pre-pandemic was to take my journal to a museum, set up on a bench in a gallery, and see what happened on the page. Sometimes I wrote about the works on the walls and what they evoked; other times it was about the humans who meandered through the rooms and the way the energy changed and shifted. I want to cultivate more and more of that in my life.
With that in mind, we’re sharing a prompt today on ekphrastic writing—or writing about a piece of art. May it take you somewhere beautiful, enriching, and sublime.
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Prompt 166. Ekphrastic Writing
The Greek word “ekphrasis” means to speak out, to call an object by name. In the world of literature, it’s writing about art, rendering what you see in vivid detail, recording what it makes you think or feel, drawing meaning from it. A famous example is John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he studies the painted figures on an ancient vessel, frozen mid-dance, mid-song, mid-kiss, the trees that will never lose their leaves, and concludes with the famous line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
But it’s not all ancient pottery and tubercular Romantic poets. Just last week, the Academy of American Poets published “Under the Tuscan Sun (2003): A Romance Interrupted” by Edil Hassan. It’s inspired by the film starring Diane Lane, where her character, who’s recently divorced, buys a villa in the Italian countryside and embarks on a golden-hued, life-affirming, short-lived love affair. In the poem, Hassan imagines such a story with the heart-breaking complexity of real life, then strikes through certain lines to render it a rom-com, simple and happy, as in: “I don’t shed a single tear (I’m lying, enough to flood the piazza).” With the excised lines, Hassan nods at the truth, then the fantasy, and lets us feel the distance between them.
Ekphrastic writing is a space to meditate on a piece of art, to richly experience it, to tease out and multiply its meaning. It’s also art from art, beautiful in itself.
Your prompt for the week:
Choose a piece of art—a favorite painting, a sculpture, a movie, a photograph, a song. Study it, noting the details and what they evoke. Then write about it—what you saw or heard, what you felt, what it meant to you.
Examples of Ekphrastic Poetry
Under the Tuscan Sun (2003): A Romance Interrupted by Edil Hassan
The Tall Figures of Giacometti by May Swenson
Starry Night by Anne Sexton
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams
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