Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids
Oil on canvas, 1942 mermaids.gif

Lisel Mueller

Who is that man in black, walking
away from us into the distance?
The painter, they say, took a long time
finding his vision of the world.
The mermaids, if that is what they are
under their full-length skirts,
sit facing each other
all down the street, more of an alley,
in front of their gray row houses.
They all look the same, like a fair-haired
order of nuns, or like prostitutes
with chaste, identical faces.
How calm they are, with their vacant eyes,
their hands in laps that betray nothing.
Only one has scales on her dusky dress.
It is 1942; it is Europe,
and nothing fits. The one familiar figure
is the man in black approaching the sea,
and he is small and walking away from us.

A work of art can harbor a thousand ideas. When you write a poem about art, it's your job to capture the art's essence by choosing to describe its various details in a way that adds up to more than the sum of the parts. In the Lisel Mueller poem above, her references to the setting (Europe, 1942) and the descriptions of the women add a level of horror and tragedy that we might not sense just by looking at the painting. Writing poetry about art is a long tradition. Its Greek name is ekphrasis.

Poetry might also refer to an artist or a collection of artwork, as in the poem "Midwest" by Steven Dunn. (click here)

The web offers links to many great art sites. Try browsing at some of our country's art museums to find a work of art you'd like to write about:

YOUR POEM (25 pts.)

After you've chosen a work of art that stirs or moves you on some emotional level, decide what details in the work are significant in order to tell the work's story. You aren't just describing the artwork clinically -- you're telling the story you think the artist might have wanted told or the story that the art tells you. Pay close attention to the following in your poem:

- Tone: Allow your details and verbs to set the mood you need, so that your poem's speaker is understood. (5 pts.)

- Concrete images: Describe various elements of the art that help us focus our attention on its key aspects. (10 pts.)

- Purpose: Let your tone and images add up to a purposefulness -- whether that be a question the poem raises, a comment on life or times, or a realization about some aspect of life or the world. Be sure the voice in the poem is consistent, too -- whether it be a voice similar to yours, a voice of someone in the artwork, or one that has a unique perspective on the "world of the artwork." (10 pts.)

- The poem should be no fewer than 15 lines and no longer than 30.
- Once you've written your first draft, then the real work begins. Read it aloud. Tweak it mercilessly. Let the sound enhance the sense.