By Stewart Florsheim
Recently, I had the pleasure of leading a poetry workshop at New Lehrhaus called “Poems on Paintings: A Workshop Using One Art to Explore Another.” The formal name for this form of writing is “ekphrastic poetry” which, simply stated, is the art of writing poetry that has been inspired by a work of art. The work of art is usually visual, e.g., a painting, but it could also be a piece of music, or dance.
Since the workshop ran for four weeks, I chose a different Jewish painter for each class–two men and two women: Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Charlotte Salomon, and Marie Vorobieff (also known as Marevna). I chose one specific painting for each class, so we could learn from each other’s viewpoints and interpretations. During each class, we discussed the artist and the painting, and spent part of the class time writing. The students finished their poems during the week, so we could begin each class critiquing each other’s work. We were all intrigued by how different each person’s response was, based on what captured them in the paintings: the imagery, the colors, the models, the artist’s life, and/or the historical context. As each student read his or her poetry, I displayed the painting–but in each case, the poetry stood on its own. Yes, it was inspired by the painting, but it also had a life of its own. As an example, here’s a poem I wrote, based on the first painting I assigned: “The Birthday,” by Marc Chagall.
after The Birthday, by Marc Chagall, 1915
They’re somersaulting through the room,
in space, tethered to each other’s eyes.
When they blink, they’ll land on the ground,
but they’ll still be happy:
Bella will find a jar, fill it with water,
and add each flower that she brought
one-by-one, arranging them carefully,
the white carnations behind the roses,
to highlight the yellows and the reds.
They’ll eat the cake Bella baked
for Marc’s 28th birthday, laughing
as they notice how the poppy seeds
get stuck between their teeth.
Bella assures him that her parents
will give in to their wedding,
but he also begins to wonder
if he can provide for her—a woman
educated in Russian language schools,
the daughter of a wealthy jeweler.
After all, what does he have to offer
in a world poised for war
besides his love, his colors,
and Vitebsk, the village
he’ll paint again and again
with roosters, cows, farms, and fiddlers—
assuring them they’ll always have a home.