Ekphrastic Poetry from Kelly Grovier

Poetry Book A lens in the palm by Kelly GrovierKelly Grovier’s collection A lens in the palm is full of ekphrasis (poetry written in response to a piece of artwork). Each poem has an ekphrastic quality about it – a certain way of looking, not just at art but at nature and humanity as well. The front cover is taken from a Japanese woodcut by Shosan ‘Monkey reaching for the moon’ c.1910, and it encapsulates the theme of Grovier’s work – reaching out in an attempt to capture the intangible.   

I have always loved ekphrastic poetry, from Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and ‘The Shield of Achilles’ by W.H.Auden to ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashberry. Art is inspiring. It helps us see things in a new way, and Grovier’s poems centre very much around the theme of seeing.

In ‘Rain, Steam, Speed’ Grovier describes the experience of looking at Turner’s famous painting, and it is almost as if the painting itself changes as he looks at it:

Detail from 'Rain, Steam and Speed'

Detail from ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’

…Then my focus
shifted – I grew tall enough
to find the hare in front – the machine

retreating to mirage behind it.

In ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ the poet seems to converse with himself, echoing Boethius, examining his world through metaphor and struggling to make sense of how he sees:

It wasn’t that we weren’t there
to appreciate it in all its splendour
when the snow fell on the mountain
blossoming in a mind
that had long since vanished…

These poems also offer us a dark, alternative perspective. In ‘The Stars’ these inanimate objects come to life, without any help or assistance from a higher power. They “think themselves into existence” and “know themselves too good / for words”. Humanity can only point and “Look”.

Detail from Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555

Detail from Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555

Grovier’s poems also interrogate our established ways of seeing ourselves, as in ‘Philosophy of Language’ when objects: “a knife, wide / as my arm, / and an apple” transform into memories and in ‘Landscape with coffee and wings’ where the poet seems to shrink himself down and step right into “Breughel’s / Icarus.”

As this collection is centred so much around art, with many references to particular images, I would have liked to see some of them printed beside the poems, to create an extra layer of interest for the reader. This is not, however, an established practice in today’s publishing industry, and for now the reader must content themselves with looking up any references that peak their interest.

Book A Thousand Years of Painting

Here are some more examples of ekphrastic poetry from the Cardiff Review. Why not find a painting and give it a go?

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