In "The lure of the gallery wall," one of the excellent conversations in the Canadian Arc Poetry's "Poet As Art Thief" issue, the poet John Barton says writing ekphrastic poetry is "a way to expand our world, especially as so much of 20th-century poetry seems overwhelmingly concerned with the self."
Writing about paintings (or musical compositions or vases or works of architecture or works in other forms, as ekphrasis is the act of creating art in response to other art,) also enhances the understanding and enjoyment of reflected pieces, inspiring viewers to look more closely than they otherwise might.
This can be fascinating. In an introduction to a series of poems published in Arc and based on artworks at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Kelley Aitken speaks of how audience-members for a reading of the poems and tour of their art inspirations felt "entranced." (The AGO provides a virtual approximation of this experience at their website.) Though these poems gain power when experienced alongside the art, some also stand alone particularly well. For example, Sheila Stewart's "Thule," which skillfully weaves ruminations about its subject with a personal narrative on playing with childhood dolls.
Looking for stand-alone poems like "Thule" is part of the unacknowledged fun in any collection of ekphrastic poetry, as it's easier to make stand-alone paintings based on poems than stand-alone poems based on paintings. One of the best is by Nick Thran, on a painting by Caravaggio of David holding Goliath’s head. Thran speaks of "the tenderness given to Goliath's face," and of how necessary it is to forget this tenderness "in the midst of some other / terror." He ends with an anecdote about looking, with a lack of surprise, at terrorist websites where "they stream the beheadings.” It's a tough piece, and the way Thran uses the painting to reflect on the world outside of its frame is what, in addition to its fine writing, makes it the journal’s most powerful poem.
Other pieces to look for are the excerpt of a book-length collaboration of poetry and art by Emily Vey Duke and Shary Boyle; an essay by Ross Leckie on Elizabeth Bishop's "Poem”; a chain of poems and artworks by Ottawa poets and artists; and a conversation between Arc editor Aislinn Hunter and Anne Simpson, the latter of whom also has three poems based on art by Betty Goodwin.
The magazine states that two of its excellent interviews (one between jwcurry and Michele Provost and another between John Barton and Stephanie Bolster) continue on-line at the Arc website. However, at the time of this review, they can't be found on the site. Hopefully the editors will put them up soon, as these are thought-provoking conversations which will hopefully lead more poets, artists, and art historians to discover this important magazine.