An ekphrastic challenge from Steven Withrow

Steven Withrow and daughter

Steaming StreetsHi everyone,

Our friend Steven Withrow likes to write poems inspired by art. Here’s a new challenge from him with an example of how he gets motivated.

David, recently, my family and I spent time at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence. I could barely pull myself away from the canvases of George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), an Ohio painter of the realist Ashcan School. Steaming Streets (1908) is possibly my favorite of his paintings, and I wrote the following poem to share in its presence and implied motion.

Had the Draft Horses in George Bellows’s Steaming Streets

understood they’d be foregrounding history,
or, with their rough-brushed musculatures,

lifted their hind hooves slick through sludge
of Winter 1908, by the ashcan calendar,

blearing a fog-wrapped tramcar’s tracks,
no doubt the nearer one, black as a bilge rat,

still would have thrust his haltered head
into the froth of his own cold breath,

as the child in the sleet-white kerchief watched
as the latched pair dragged their dray-less driver on.


If you’d like to try an ekphrastic poem of your own, please choose a work of visual art and share your accompanying poem along with a link to the original work. You may take any approach you wish, but the poem should, ideally, add something to the experience of the visual work rather than merely describing what is evident.

–Steven Withrow

Steven, thank you for the beautiful poem and great challenge. Heads up everyone. Find a picture or photo and climb inside it. Ekphrastic poems are favorites of mine too. Here’s one I shared last year for an art-poetry exhibit in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Artist Paula Graham painted a beautiful picture of fish and I supplied the poem.

Paula Graham 3Paula Graham 2Paula Graham 1

by David L. Harrison

Lean down,
the satin line
that separates us from

them, dwellers of the blue world,
slender darts suspended
earth and sky

where I, were I able,
might choose now and then
to plunge in and exchange
friendly bubbles
of fishy gossip.

B.J. Lee has a poem with picture to share so I’m adding them to the post. Thanks, B.J.

BJLee picture

Root Beer

In summer
icy root beer floats
are pleasing

In winter
icy root beer flows
are freezing

copyright 2009 B. J. Lee


Thank you, Madeleine Kuderick and son, for the following ekphrastic poem inspired by Ben, age 10.

Madeleine Kuderick's son


The sky is blue.

The trees are green.

But what if somewhere in between

there was a world way up high

where lizards floated in the sky?

And no one said –

You don’t belong!

Or –

Flying lizards are just wrong!

Instead, they let the lizard be

and let him see what he might see.

Then maybe he would start to sing

and feel just like a lizard king.

I bet he could do anything!

Where lizards fly and words don’t sting.

And God would like the song he sung

and let him catch clouds on his tongue.

Sometimes I want to fly there too.

Where skies are green and leaves are blue.


And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a new offering that just arrived from B.J. Lee. Read and enjoy.

Bird on the Brain
By B.J. Lee

Bird on the Brain

A bird on the brain can be one great big pain.
If it stays very long, a cat could go insane.

Once bird takes residence inside your mind,
you may as well leave other thoughts far behind

Let’s say you just want to sit dreaming of fish.
With bird on the brain, you won’t get your wish.

The bird can be quite difficult to dislodge,
since he makes all your thoughts one complete bird hodgepodge.

You’ll think robins and sparrows, canaries and pewees,
parakeets, goldfinches, blue jays, and chickadees.

Take it from me. I’ve been there before.
There is only one way to get bird out the door.

You have to be stubborn, unyielding and firm.
You have to keep at him till he starts to squirm.

Tell him you’re in on his little bird schemes.
Tell him to stop messing up your fish dreams.

Tell him, instead of fish, he’ll be your snack.
He’ll then fly the coop and he will not come back

(at least until the next time).

31 comments on “An ekphrastic challenge from Steven Withrow

  1. Loved your poem, Steven–it really pulled me inside the painting. Vibrant, visceral–both of them. And David, lots to love in yours, too, especially the images of ‘the satin line that separates us’ from those ‘slender darts suspended between earth and sky.’


    • Hi Julie,

      Thank you for coming by to read Steven’s fine poem and comment on it. This is a tried and true technique, not only for conceiving poetry but for whole stories. I’m glad that Steven suggested bringing it here.

  2. Steven: I love the parallel between the sleek scarfed girl and the photo of you and daughter. Also delight in the way you fly back to Bellow’s point of view in 1908! Not
    just your science data and history are unique tidbits, but also your vocabulary and poem structures. (Will now attempt to utilize the term: ekphrastic”)
    David: You honor other poets and then stage their pieces to perfection in a duet with your own.I have begun to get Christmas Greetings from our poets in Honesdale’12.
    All of them reflect the graciousness of your bringing us together.
    Am off to video Ken’s Poetry Class in Phoenix.
    Jeanne Poland

    • Good morning, dear Jeanne,

      By now you may be in Phoenix. If so, give Ken my best too. I’m so glad that you remain in touch and collaboration. As for this poem by Steven, it’s one of my favorites so I’m delighted to see it posted here.

      I’m glad you are hearing from so many poets from our workshops. They are indeed good people!

  3. Wow, Steven – waht a poem to get us started! Love the imagery and historicity of the picture/poem combination. Also enjoyed David’s & BJ’s – great examples of elevating something beautiful into something more. Guess I’ll have to get working on one myself, now!

    • Hi Matt,

      Good to see you here and I hope you follow through with a poem of your own. I left this up for today before moving on but, as you know, we’ll receive more poems for several more days.

  4. Steven and David, thanks for sharing this wonderful challenge. I’ve sent a poem to you via email. Sometimes when I look at a piece of artwork, I try get inside the artist’s head and to imagine what might’ve been going on in his life at the very moment he chose to paint that particular picture . . . especially when that artist is my own 10 year old son. I hope you like it!

    • Dear Madeleine,

      I got your poem and Ben’s artwork posted and want to thank you for sharing them. Please tell Ben that I like his picture very much. He has talent! Judging from your poem, it’s not hard to see where he gets it.

  5. “Friendly bubbles of fishy gossip” – marvelous!

    And the image that sticks with me from Steven’s wonderful poem is “thrust his haltered head into the froth of his own cold breath” – so evocative.

    I love writing to art and do it often, though I don’t think I’ve stuck so closely to the visual inspiration. I sort of grab onto the feeling of the piece and meander off from there.

    David, if you feel like adding another, here’s a silly art-inspired poem I did for kids a while back called “This Pig’s Got the Blues” :

    • Renee, you’ve done it again. I love your interview with your brother. How DO you draw out the silliness in people? It’s a gift. And of course I laughed at your sad pig poem. Now I must insist that everyone who reads this go immediately to click onto your site, sit back, and just enjoy.

  6. for Gabriel in Joyce’s “The Dead”

    I love
    the falling snow,
    despite its limitations,
    its icy implications—
    a fleshy, swollen fruit
    bursting with elixir,
    silences the earth
    with piquant scent and
    velvet hand for one resplendent
    moment before melting into
    sodden, blackish pulp.
    like Gretta
    in the lamplight
    remembering Michael Furey—
    he, a flame, a flicker
    in the half-forgotten night,
    she, a caramelizing peach–
    stinging, sweet, insouciant–
    while snowflakes falling, falling
    in the evanescent mist
    as Christmas evening dwindles
    into caviar and wine—
    voices ringing, crystal clinking,
    laughter hollow, rippling
    in fast, ferocious waves.
    inside—fires glowing,
    outside—whitely snowing,
    whitely, whitely snowing,
    the while Gabriel sadly knowing
    the love he thought pristine…
    a mere echo of that early,
    blighted snow.

    (c) jgk, 2010

    • Julie, I’m sorry that I failed to respond to your lovely poem. It’s well crafted and echoes Gabriel’s melancholy as he moves through the long evening. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  7. Thank you all for your kind words about my Steaming Streets poem. It was a joy to write and revise. I’d love to publish a whole collection of poems-about-paintings.

    And thank you also for sharing your own ekphrastic efforts — much to admire here! I didn’t expect a poem about a literary character, Julie, but I am very pleasantly surprised.

    Steven Withrow

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