Thursday, August 11, 2016

Diane Mayr: Ekphrastic Poetry

Photo: Kevin Barber

We're inside the main reading room of the Library of Congress' Jefferson Building in Washington DC to introduce you to a TLD VIP— the one and only "sprinkler hose of poetry". . .


How lucky we are to have Diane Mayr as our newest TLD contributor! Her extensive knowledge of library and online resources has proven invaluable to me time and time again. Her prowess as a researcher and artful competence as a poet makes me certain that she is the perfect person to sit at Today's Little Ditty's virtual information desk.

Diane is no stranger to Poetry Friday. Many of you will recognize her name associated with two terrific blogs: Random Noodling (her poetry blog) and Kurious Kitty's Kurio Kabinet (her library blog). What you may not know is that Diane is the author of five fiction and nonfiction books for children, and serves her community as the Adult Services Librarian/Assistant Director at the Nesmith Library in Windham, NH. She is also the only person I know who possesses an honest-to-goodness Poetic License. No kidding—see for yourself!

As part of her "Ask a Librarian" series on Today's Little Ditty, Diane has agreed to address readers' questions and offer tips, tools, and insights on a variety of topics for readers and writers of poetry. If you have a question for Diane or would like to suggest a topic for a future post, please email her at TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com.

In the meantime, let's give a warm welcome to the eclectic, ekphrastic, and extra-fantastic Diane Mayr!

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Thank you, Michelle for inviting me to post today! The fact that I've been a public librarian 30 years this August gives me an air of authority, I guess. Rather than as an authority, think of a public librarian as a partner in unleashing your curiosity and creativity.

With that in mind, I'm going to tell you about one of my favorite types of poetry--ekphrastic poetry. Poems about art. Poems inspired by a work of art. Poems about a creator of art.

Ekphrasis, simply stated, is art about art. (See note below.)

The term is being used a little more often than it used to be, although you still won't find it in some dictionaries. Here's what you get if you look up ekphrasis at

Poets have been writing about art probably as long as poetry and art have existed. We can go back to the Greeks for early examples (the term ekphrasis is from the Greek and is translated as "description"). Here's part of Homer's description of Achilles shield from The Iliad:
Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;
Rich various artifice emblazed the field;
Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;
A silver chain suspends the massy round;
Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,
And godlike labours on the surface rose.
Read more here.

I daresay everyone's had to read "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats for a class somewhere along the line.

Poets of the recent past, and poets writing today, use art as inspiration. From Amy Lowell to Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Edward Hirsch.

Ekphrastic poetry takes all forms from long, as Homer wrote, to short, shorter, and shortest (think haiku). Amy Lowell wrote haiku-like poems such as this one on a print by Hokusai. I've included a work by Hokusai, but I'm not sure which of his prints Lowell had in mind when she wrote the poem:

One of the "Hundred Views of Fuji," by Hokusai
From "Lacquer Prints" in Pictures of the Floating World (1919)

Being thirsty,
I filled a cup with water,
And, behold!--Fuji-yama lay upon the water,
Like a dropped leaf!
Interested in short poems? Peruse this collection of contemporary five-line Ekphrastic Tanka.

If you take a look at the Ekphrastic Tanka page, the editor wrote, "Links were valid at the time the Special Feature was edited. We have attempted to find stable links for the art, but alas, the links are decaying faster than we can update." That's one of the reasons why I often incorporate my ekphrastic poems into the work of art. You, too, might consider this option using a free online photo editor like PicMonkey or Canva As a public librarian, though, I must ask that you only use works within the public domain. Public domain is usually work created prior to 1923, however, if the artist lived well into the twentieth century, the work may still be under copyright. I can hear you asking, "how would I know?" Use art work that you can find on Wikimedia Commons (the urn, and the Hokusai print are both from Wikimedia Commons) or The Athenaeum, where rights are clearly stated. Or, you can ask your local public librarian for assistance!

(Note: art is a broad term, so the art could be 2-dimensional, sculpture, fountains, poetry, dancers, etc.)

Diane Mayr is a long-time public librarian and a freelance writer.  She is the author of a storyhour favorite picture book, Run, Turkey, Run! (Walker & Co., 2007).  Since 2007, she has concentrated on haiku and other short form poems, and works to improve her graphic skills by illustrating them. Find out more about Diane at her website.

In case you missed last week's interview with Diana Murray, her DMC challenge for August is to write a poem about an unlikely hero. Thanks to Rosi Hollinbeck and Jessica Bigi for getting things started! Post your poem HERE.

This week's Poetry Friday roundup is being hosted by birthday girl Julieanne at To Read To Write To Be.


  1. Thank you, Michelle, for letting me go on and on about ekphrasis. I urge all of your readers to try writing an ekphrastic poem. And, if you rather just do the reading, look for books by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. One of her titles is In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women.

    And, if anyone wants book discussion group title suggestions, let me know!

    1. I should have said for adult book groups. I just finished a good one that I think book groups are going to love: The Summer before the War by Helen Simonson. Downton Abbey-ish. Very discussable topics such as women's role in society, class distinctions, the glorification of war, etc.

    2. The pleasure's all mine, Diane! I look forward to many interesting discussions and also to checking out these titles you suggest.

  2. Wow Diane. You are such a busy bee. thanks for the insight into ekphrastic poetry - funnily the word upsets my spellchecker which wants to change it to periphrastic, whatever that may be.

    1. Ha! That's a new one for me. I looked it up and it means "circumlocutory," which, as far as I'm concerned is a definition that is as clear as mud!

  3. Nothing makes me ecstatic
    like writing an ekphrastic,
    one might even call me spastic,
    but I'll find that last word.
    Or at least I will outlast it.

    1. Kind of painted yourself into a rhyme corner... ;-)

  4. What a wonderful post. It feels like you wrote it especially for me! LOL. I adore ekphrastic poetry. I didn't know it was a "thing". I have been collecting images of reading on a pinterest board for a couple of years and I often use a painting as a prompt for writing. This past year, a poem from a painting earned a prize in my state poetry competition.
    And, thank you for being accessible as a librarian! I always felt too dumb to ask the questions of librarians I wanted to ask....UNTIL I entered Library School. I didn't realize that the librarians weren't finding me dumb....they loved helping partnering in my curiosity. Now, I do that with middle schoolers and. I. LOVE my job. I have enjoyed your Kurious Kitty blog so much.
    Keep up the good work, both of you.

    1. Thanks! Congratulations on your ekphrastic win! Keep up the good work with middle schoolers--a difficult age group at best!

  5. Thank you, Michelle, for showcasing our librarian-poet extraordinaire, Diane. I have learned a great deal from Diane over the course of PF posts and correspondence.

  6. "eclectic, ekphrastic, and extra-fantastic " - a perfect description of our amazing Diane. Thanks to both of you for this great post - rich and condensed, like a truffle! (Readers might also enjoy our own Irene Latham's THE COLOR OF LOST ROOMS.) :0)

  7. Diane, you are a marvel. You are truly a poetry ninja!

  8. "The sprinkler hose of poetry"! -- adorable. I like Amy Lowell's poem very much.

  9. I have enjoyed reading and writing ekphrasis for many years. It still has a red line under it, though. When will it be put into the dictionary, Diane? Thanks for all the resources.

  10. I love ekphrastic poetry! Thank you for your post!

  11. Great post, Michelle and Diane! So much talent among the Poetry Friday crowd. =)