Words That Reflect Art

Observe International Art Appreciation Day by viewing, reading, and creating original works of art.

By Noel Woodward

painting palette

A common concern of many English language arts teachers is that with the shift toward informational texts, art and literature will leave the classroom. However, this is not the case. While the Common Core standards emphasize informational texts, many skills in the standards can be taught through other mediums.

So why not take a day or two to spend solely on art? For this article, I’ve used International Art Appreciation Day, August 9th, as inspiration, but any day can be art appreciation day. Connect two different types of art by studying ekphrastic poems—poems that draw inspiration from another work of art.

Since comparing different mediums is a distinct goal in the Common Core, your class can experience art and fulfill Common Core standards at the same time. If you don’t believe that this is Common Core, just take a look at the standards!

Common Core Standard: RL.9-10.7 states: "Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus)."

Poetry Analysis

Begin by engaging in a close reading of an ekphrastic poem or two. This works best if the poems are paired with the original work of art so that class members can see where the authors got their inspiration and what particular scenes the authors are describing in their poems. Put an image up on the projector screen while you read, or include an image on the poem handout.

There are many poems that reference other works. Below are some ideas of ekphrastic poems that you might consider:

  • “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W. H. Auden
  • “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” William Carlos Williams
  • “The Shield of Achilles,” W.H. Auden
  • “The Mad Potter,” John Hollander
  • “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats
  • “Stealing The Scream,” Monica Youn
  • “War Photograph,” Kate Daniels
  • “Museum Guard,” David Hernandez
  • “The Family Photograph,” Vona Groarke

Visit this website for additional information about the authors and copies of the poems.

Class Writing Activity

Common Core Standard: W.9-10

Provide a work of art, or ask class members to bring in their own inspiration. Students might be more engaged in their work if it is related to a prior interest. Of course, remind them to be appropriate with their choices, but leave it open to photography, graffiti, and images from pop culture. Whatever they choose, or whatever you provide for them, will be the inspiration for their own ekphrastic poem.

In general, poems that reflect other works of art begin with description, bringing the reader into the scene and providing more details about who and what is in the image. Allow some time for brainstorming  for the beginning of their poems. What is going on in the scene? What specific things do they notice? Poets can get creative after the description and add depth to the story. What do they know that a viewer would not? What are the people thinking?

The next step is to compose the poems. Help your class out by modeling the process. Choose a piece of art that inspires you and begin to compose your poem. Do this think-aloud style and explain why you are adding each line. You might consider chunking by stanza: model your first stanza, then ask the class to compose the first stanza, and so on.

Emphasize how you would like the poem to be formatted. Free verse might be the most natural for beginning poets, at least for a first draft, since there is a great deal of description involved in an ekphrastic poem. Many students will ask for guidelines, so you will need to decide if you are looking for a particular number of lines, an emphasis on figurative language, or a catchy rhythm.

Poetry is meant to be heard, so close this activity by staging a reading. Have individuals present their poems with their work of art up on the board while they talk. Create a welcoming atmosphere with low lighting and snacks.


“Musée des Beaux Arts,” W. H. Auden

Investigate the myth behind the original painting and poem inspired by the painting. Class members complete an analysis of the poem and view the painting by Pieter Bruegel that inspired the poem, “The Fall of Icarus.” Further research on mythology is a part of the lesson.

“My Last Duchess,” Robert Browning

Using Browning’s poem, writers take inspiration from art to create art. Taking on one of the personalities of a character in this poem, class members compose their own dramatic monologue.

Sensory Details

Poems looking a bit dry and flat? Try this out to help your pupils with descriptive language. Class members examine a model and focus on brainstorming precise adjectives.