Ekphrastic poems for high school students

Merge art and writing with these ekphrastic poetry resources

Last week in my junior English classes, we started our fall journey into Writer’s Workshop. Every year, I change out a few of my Writer’s Workshop projects from the year before to enliven the selection both for them and for me.

As we continue further down the path this week, I plan to introduce them to ekphrastic poetry. Their ekphrastic poem is one of eight projects (out of a list of ten from which they choose) they’ll complete and submit in a writing portfolio on December 16.

Students work in Writer's Workshop to write ekphrastic poetry.

An ekphrastic poem is a poem written in response to or about a work of art and is one of my two new projects on the list this time around. According to the Poetry Foundation website

“An ekphrastic poem 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

The word ekphrastic comes to English from the Greek. It can also be spelled ecphrastic and it recalls the Greek word for “description.” The word alludes to the abundance of details used by the classic Greek poets to describe an object. In effect, these writers wanted “to transform the visual to the verbal,” explains writer Jackie Craven in “What Is Ekphrastic Poetry?”

The best way to transform the visual to the verbal? By experiencing the art with words… hence, ekphrastic poetry.

Of course, the genre invites creativity. In her article, Craven writes that an ekphrastic poem may:

  • be about a piece of art
  • be about how a piece of art makes the viewer feel
  • be rhymed or unrhymed
  • be metrical or free verse

Two more tips for ekphrastic poems:

  • Use lots of adjectives. Describe the artwork’s elements as precisely and fully as possible.
  • Incorporate movement and sound. Use powerful “kinetic” words to convey the action of a scene in the art. In Writing About Art, a City College of New York text, the book’s author, Dr. Marjorie Munsterberg, calls attention to the word choice employed by Victorian writer John Ruskin in his description of The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner. Here’s an excerpt:

“It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night.  The whole surface of the sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm.” 

Ekphrastic poems have been written about this painting, The Slave Ship.
The Slave Ship | J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To introduce ekphrastic poetry, I’ll pass out my project sheet, which, along with the basics of the genre, also features this self-portrait painted by late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

My students will write a first draft of an ekphrastic based on this painting by Frida Kahlo.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943, Mudec Milano, 3 maggio 2018

Then I plan to project and scroll through this ThoughtCo. webpage on my white board. It provides definitions and examples of well-known ekphrastic poems alongside their respective artworks. For instance, an excerpt of Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” appears beneath Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” appears alongside a photo of an ancient Greek vessel.

Anne Sexton wrote an ekphrastic poem about Van Gogh's Starry Night.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night

For a mentor text written for Van Gogh’s painting above, click here: The Starry Night by Anne Sexton. For more ekphrastic poems alongside the art described, have students check out “The Poet Speaks of Art.”


The ThoughtCo. webpage ends with a practice poem for students to try that describes Kahlo’s “Portrait as a Tehuana.”

Since I know many students will be unfamiliar with Kahlo, we’ll watch this video from Artrageous with Nate. It’s about four minutes long… just enough to explain the basic details from Kahlo’s life of tumult, fame, and creativity.

Watch this video from Artrageous to provide your students with just enough information about Kahlo’s life to practice writing an ekphrastic poem in class.

After we watch the video, we’ll draft out a quick ekphrastic poem that’s based on Portrait as a Tehuana. We’ll do this in a hot second and then share out our extremely rough poems. The point? To show students the basic gist of ekphrastic poetry and to pave the way for another future poem inspired by an artwork of their own choosing.

Because I want students to identify with their own chosen artwork, their Frida Kahlo poem won’t be the one they submit with their portfolios. I really want them to seek out an artwork that speaks personally to them.

Of course, I’m sure I’ll hear some groans from a few students who just want to “get the project done,” so I’ll need to help them locate some additional artworks. After all, our school is hours from an art museum. The best way I know to quickly show a wealth of art to students is to ask them to visit the Explore tab at Google Arts and Culture. Here, they can explore art by subject matter, color, location, and more filters to uncover an endless supply of masterpieces.

Stay tuned for a future post with some of the ekphrastic poems my students write for this project. I’ll be sure to post and include them on my project list for the next time we journey through Writer’s Workshop.


There’s simply not enough art in our lives.

In our news-weather-sports culture, art is too often relegated to the unfair stereotype of the stodgy art museum. Or art is presented as overly complex and steeped in psychology. Or it’s considered something one either can or cannot do… that’s it not a skill like any other that requires practice and years to develop. Just imagine how student attitudes about art would change if they spent as much time drawing (a skill they can practice at 17 or 70, by the way) as they do shooting baskets!


Need a new poetry lesson?

Enter your email below and I’ll send you this PDF file that will teach your students to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

Treasured Object Poetry student handout
Treasured Object Poems

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Published by marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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