Ekphrasis poems began as poetry that vividly described something. It was poetry that very elaborately detailed everything about its subject. The poet Homer’s description of the forging of Achilles’ Shield by Hephasestus (the Greek blacksmith god) in the 18th chapter of the Illiad is one of the earliest known examples of it.
“And first Hephasestus makes a great and massive shield, blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface, raising a rim around it, glittering, triple-ply with a silver shield-strap run from edge to edge and five layers of metal to build the shield itself.
He then goes further to describe how the shield was forged in five sections and all the images that were on it.
During the Greek period, Ekphrasis poems described just about anything from exceptional household objects (like urns), weapons, fine clothing, and beautifully made buildings. Today, they typically are only used to describe works of art. But they aren’t as descriptive. Modern ekphrasis try to interpret and/or connect with their subjects.
For example, W. H Auden was inspired by a painting called “Landscape with the fall of Icarus“. At first glance, it looks like a fairly ordinary landscape. The focus is on a farmer works his land. But then, at a closer look into the background of the painting, you can see Icarus’ leg as he drowns in the ocean. He wrote, in a poem of the same name:
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
William Carlos Willams was also inspired by this painting, and how it focuses more on the everyday work of the farmer over the death of Icarus.