Karen Skolfield: On Ekphrasis

If you want to get the attention of 4th graders, show them a painting of a man made out of produce. I click to the PowerPoint slide of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s The Emperor.

The Emperor, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590.

The Emperor, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590.

“It’s a guy!” “But there’s fruit!” “I see grapes!” “What is THAT?” one student says, and points, I think, to the artichoke shoulder, or maybe it’s the fig-ear.

“You’re right, he’s made out of fruits and vegetables. Crazy!” I say, and shake my head. “Do you think this is a recent painting or one that was made a long time ago?”

The kids have fun answering. We’ve just looked at Kehinde Wiley’s 2005 painting Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, part of a series in which Wiley re-sees famous poses and scenes using black models. So they’re feeling pretty confident that the Arcimboldo painting is the same: an old theme made new, given fresh meaning.

They’re not disappointed when I tell them The Emperor is 425 years old. In fact, they seem delighted – maybe they hadn’t realized humans were making art then, so sure are they that the world prior to their births consisted of amphibians crawling from the ooze. “We need to write about this guy,” I say, and they gamely grab their poetry journals.

I’m visiting a class in Fort River Elementary in Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst is in western Massachusetts, closer to New York and Connecticut than Boston. A 2-D “tree” in the Fort River lobby, made of construction paper handprints, shows the many skin tones in the first grade; more than half of the students are people of color, with some thanks to the five colleges in the area that attract international grad students and professors. Nearly 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches, slightly above the state average, which seems at odds for a town of just 38,000 with more cultural and arts events per capita than many major cities.

The fourth graders in front of me have their poetry journals open. Some don’t want to hear my prompts and have started writing and really, who am I to stop them. But most like the Q&A poetry form. I remind them: “I’m going to ask you a few questions about Arcimboldo’s The Emperor, and your answers are the poem.” After each question, which I say aloud, I wait a few minutes as they write. They have a handout to look at if they wish, with the questions on them – a good strategy for kids who have trouble attending to auditory instruction, or for kids who want to leap ahead.

After each painting and poem, I ask if anyone wants to share: it’s mostly boys volunteering by 4th grade, and though I’ve never counted, I have the sense that more white hands go up than non-white. I even this out as best I can by calling on kids who haven’t raised hands. This teacher’s done a good job; almost everyone is willing, even eager, to read, even the shy ones, even the ones for whom English is their newest language.

Radiante, Olga Albizu, 1967.

Radiante, Olga Albizu, 1967.

This is not my first time using ekphrastic poetry prompts in elementary schools, so I’ve learned to keep it simple, keep the poems short, talk about the artwork before we write about it. I’ve learned not to give them choices about multiple pieces of artwork to write about – the act of choosing can be stress-inducing to students who have attention or anxiety issues (I made a 3rd grader cry once by asking him to choose between two pieces of art). I’ve learned that whichever girl sits closest to me is often unwilling to speak up, so I take a couple of minutes after the class so she can read without the whole class listening. I’ve learned, most importantly, that they love writing and poetry at this age, with few exceptions and very little eye rolling. I don’t know what these teachers today are doing, but it’s making my work easy.


When my kids started kindergarten, I – and all the parents – got some pressure to volunteer. The new class needs a room parent! The new class needs math helpers! Soccer coach, PGO president, savings account director, book fair assistant, fantasy-area overseer, costume designer, nut-free snack scheduler, really, the list of things I did not want to do went on and on.

So with no small amount of guilt, I dodged most of the heavy volunteering but baked heartily for all school events. Then my oldest son brought home his first poems. Oh hey. I perked up and sent an email to his teacher: “Want me to visit?” She replied, I think, before I hit SEND.

I’ve written very few ekphrastic poems – maybe three. But as I considered what to do with two classes of 3rd graders, I decided this would be a way into writing that could be both inward and outward looking – and any chance to bring more art into their lives seemed a great bonus. I’m no art history major, though, so Googling and hive-mind questions on Facebook have been great sources for background and for artists I’d never encountered.

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

The classes last about an hour. I begin with a brief explanation of ekphrastic poetry, and I tell the kids they now know a word that their parents probably don’t know. The kids love this. Occasionally a teacher will pipe up and say s/he didn’t know the word, and the kids love that, too. Then I show a slide, talk about the painting or sculpture by asking open-ended questions to the kids, and read the ekphrastic poem aloud. Some of the art and poem pairings I’ve used include Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and John Stone’s “Three for the Mona Lisa;” Pieter Brueghel’s Two Monkeys and Wislawa Szymborska’s “Two Monkeys by Brueghel;” Georg Baselitz’s Die Mühle brennt (“The mill burns”) and the poem of the same (German) name by Richard Matthews; a selection of Degas paintings and Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School – Detroit 1942;” and more. It’s helpful if I know a little about their art classes – if they’ve been studying or imitating some abstract artists, I’ll throw in an abstract painting by Olga Albizu or Georgia O’Keeffe. I love sculpture: Xu Bing’s found-material phoenixes are always a hit, or Alberto Giacometti’s tall figures; go playful with sculptures from Hung Yi’s “Fancy Animal Carnival” series or abstract with Joan Miro’s Moonbird. Or throw in a sculpture built from Legos. The kids will go nuts.

After I read a poem, we’ll talk. I’m continuously amazed by what they see and hear and puzzle through. Take the boats in Edvard Munch’s The Scream – have you noticed those boats? Trust me, if you ask some 3rd graders about the painting, one will spot the boats and come up with some dynamic ideas about what those boats are doing and contrast the cool and calm in the distance with the worry and foreboding in the foreground. Okay, the kids probably won’t use the words “foreboding” and “foreground,” but if you use those words a few times, the kids will eventually use them, too. Ask them about the vines growing out of the woman in Frida Kahlo’s Roots – their answers will range from wonderfully creepy sci-fi to some inkling of how emotionally complex the lives of 5thgraders can be. Tell them about Kahlo’s self portraits and how this is probably one – give them her medical background – and they will make all the connections you’d hoped for, and more.

Then students write poems while the adults in the room help out kids who need extra attention. For Arcimboldo’s The Emperor, here are the prompts/questions I use:

  • Let’s assume that this changed skin is new, and that the emperor can’t see himself. Help him out and tell him what he looks like.
  • The emperor is shocked at your description of him! Try to think of a way to make him feel better about himself. What can you say to him to make him happier, maybe even proud?
  • You know, but haven’t yet told the emperor, what happens to fruits and vegetables and flowers that are left on the counter for a few days. What do you think will happen to the emperor now? Your answer to this question is the ending of the poem.

It’s good, as you prepare a class for elementary kids, to consider their needs and maturity level. Make your prompts as racially and gender diverse as possible; ditto for the poets. Leave out images that are violent or contain nudity, even for the older kids; their teachers will never forgive you if you get that wrong. Leave out poems that are too complex or too long or touch on mature subjects.

Roots, Frida Kahlo, 1943.

Roots, Frida Kahlo, 1943.

Think like a kid growing up in America: for the Wiley painting, I (luckily) asked kids to come up with three POSITIVE words to say about the subject, a black man astride a horse. Even though the subject in Wiley’s painting has much the same expression as Napoleon does in the famous Jacques-Louis David painting it’s modeled after, the words the kids first came up with were all negative: “scary” especially stood out to me, in a class in which half the kids are people of color. We’d already prepped by talking about how Napoleon had let his people starve to fund his war effort and how this new leader envisioned by Wiley was going to do better, and still they came up with “scary” for the black man. Yikes. But by saying “nope, I want POSITIVE words for him,” they eventually got off the scary thread and found kinder words.

(Of course, as I write this, I think: Is it okay for leaders to look scary? Is that a positive attribute? The students didn’t use that word for Napoleon, but could I have turned this into a moment in which a black man is leading his soldiers into battle in a way that makes the “scare” factor work?)

I taught that particular class two months ago, and here I am, still thinking about it. I’m scheduled to teach another class on ekphrastic poetry, with a new set of kids, in two weeks. After that, another school. And another. Each time, I’ll learn something different, come home jazzed by student poems and ideas.

Let’s face it: I’m not really Room Parent material. But if poetry’s involved, sign me up.


This post originally appeared on E. Kristin Anderson’s blog Write All the Words! on April 28, 2015. My thanks to her for prompting me to write this post and for hosting it on her wonderful website. She asks poets and teachers to write articles or interviews about poetry and posts one each day in April, which is National Poetry Month.

One thought on “Karen Skolfield: On Ekphrasis

  1. This is wonderful — and timely, as I’m just now planning a few summer poetry sessions at my local library with 4th and 5th graders. Thanks for sharing!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s