Every picture tells an ekphrastic story

Here’s a class that’s a class act:  It’s The Brenda Connor-Bey Learning to See Legacy Workshop Series Exploring Poetry, which will draw literary enthusiasts from around WAG country to Greenburgh this fall to try their hands at ekphrastic writing.


Ekphrasis is a verbal, often literary, description of an artwork, from the Greek meaning to “speak out.” Among the earliest examples is Homer’s detailed depiction of the Shield of Achilles in “The Iliad.” Others include Oscar Wilde’s allegorical novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Robert Nathan’s otherworldly “Portrait of Jennie.” But by far one of the most moving and influential is W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” in which the poet explores Brueghal’s 16th-century “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” as a metaphor for how human tragedy and suffering happen “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” (See also poet William Carlos Williams’ beautifully spare response to Brueghel’s work.)

The Learning to See Series, which runs through next spring, expands on the original definition of ekphrastic writing to embrace any art – be it visual, musical or literary – that serves as inspiration.

“You’re taking an artwork or a piece of music and interpreting it through your own feelings,” says Karen Rippstein, who will lead the three workshops at Greenburgh Town Hall this month. “There are two imaginations at work – that of the original artist and your own.”

I can say from personal experience that Karen’s class is all about jumpstarting the imagination. Participants – who range from newbie scribes to seasoned pros from all walks of life and all parts of Westchester County – may be asked to write in class on an object or a box of objects, a picture from a magazine or a postcard of a famous artwork and then share the experience. There are homework options and supplemental reading.

It is less intimidating than it sounds. Karen’s is a sympathetic voice. (A poet, she is also a certified poetry therapist.) The criticism is constructive; the atmosphere, serious but warm and at times jocular.

Learning to See is the brainchild of two women – the poet/memoirist Sarah Bracey White, executive director of Greenburgh’s Arts and Culture Committee, and Brenda Connor-Bey, the town’s first poet laureate.

“Sarah was the innovator of the idea that Greenburgh needs to be a mecca for poetry,” Karen says. “Brenda came up with the idea of ekphrasis as her gift back to the community” in 2008.

Brenda and Karen got to know each other through Poetry Caravan, an organization of poets founded by Sufi poet Usha Akella that reads poetry to shut-ins, among other activities.

Brenda was looking for facilitators for Learning to See and caught one of Karen’s writing workshops at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. The rest is a burgeoning movement with workshops throughout the year and various instructors.

“It has grown,” Karen says, “and we’d like to see more happening.”

For those longing to take the plunge into writing’s hypnotic waters, Learning to See is a great way to get the tootsies wet.

“That’s because most of us are visual,” Karen says. “Once you start an association, the imagination takes over.”

[stextbox id=”gold” caption=“Musée des Beaux Arts”]

By W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


The Brenda Connor-Bey Learning to See Legacy Workshop Series Exploring Poetry, with Karen Rippstein, takes place Sept. 4, 11 and 18, 6 to 8 p.m., at Greenburgh Town Hall. Enrollment is limited to 12 adults. To pre-register for this or future workshops, email bracey0114@aol.com. For questions, call (914) 682-1574.

For those interested in a writing workshop series with spiritual overtones, there’s “Poetry: Doorway to Prayer.” Alice Feeley, RDC, Greenburgh’s current poet laureate, leads the Oct. 6 session at the Divine Compassion Spirituality Center in White Plains. Writer/educator/activist Ann van Buren leads the Feb. 10 session and Karen Rippstein the April 13 workshop. The cost is $30 for each and includes lunch. For more, click onto http://dcspiritualitycenter.org/center-programs-spring-2012/poetry-gateway-to-prayer.


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