Poetry Friday: “The Starry Night” Sexton and other Ekphrases for Peg

I was sharing an article from the NYTimes by Holland Cotter with my sister Peggy during a summer visit. The article, A Lifetime of Looking, Magically Recovered” (8/5/2014) details his desire to create a museum collection based on his memories of “the traces of art encounters from over the years.” The line that caught my attention was,

The only art I’m truly an expert on is art I’ve experienced firsthand.

So, I posed the question to Peggy. What art have that you experienced firsthand would  go into your own memory museum collection?

We talked paintings:
She-“Guernica by Picasso.”

“There’s an Ingres painting of a woman in a blue dress that is stunning,” she admitted  as if apologizing to her favorite, Van Gogh. “I have always been a Van Gogh person. I’m all about those brush strokes…The Starry Night at MOMA.”

The brush strokes are what makes the difference between seeing the painting The Starry Night  reproduced digitally and seeing the painting firsthand. For example, Google Art offers an opportunity to view the details of The Starry Night for those who do not have the opportunity to see the painting live.

The firsthand experience, however,  is very different. The size of the painting on the wall of the Museum of Modern Art (29″ x 36 1/4″) belies the mesmerizing power created by the furrows of oil paint on canvas. Here is Van Gogh’s hand at work, intimate and fierce.

As always happens during our conversations, we were interrupted before I could share the  Anne Sexton poem “The Starry Night”, an ekphrasis on this Van Gogh painting:

An ekphrasis is “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art” (Merriam-Webster).

Sexton begins her poem with a note from Van Gogh to his brother Theo. She voices Van Gogh’s point of view, turning the painting upside down with the image of a woman’s hair and calls attention to the serpentine swirls created by an old dragon.


"The Starry Night" Vincent Van Gogh, Saint Rémy, June 1889. Museum of Modern Art.

“The Starry Night” Vincent Van Gogh, Saint Rémy, June 1889. Museum of Modern Art.

The Starry Night


That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die. (continued)
Sexton is not the only artist who created an ekphrasis for this painting. The songwriter Don McLean wrote the song Vincent, and the first line is a reference to the painting, a refrain repeated three times for the song,
Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul (continued)
YouTube has a particularly moving slideshow featuring the song with other Van Gogh images complied by Anthony Difatta:
“It’s part of an art and creative writing lesson plan for the patients at Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. Compiled by artist Anthony DiFatta, who also suffers from mental illness and teaches art to other adults with mental illness.”
I am sure that I am not the only person who has hummed McLean’s song standing before the painting.
Finally, I have used an interactive animation for the painting by the  Greek artist Petros Vrellis a few years ago when I taught the Sexton poem to a class of sophomores:
My own appreciation for Van Gogh’s The Starry Night painting has deepened with these ekphrases created by Sexton (poetry), McLean (song), and Vrellis (film).  Nothing, however, has ever matched the experience of seeing the painting firsthand.
In doing this post, I appreciate what Cotter meant by saying, “The only art I’m truly an expert on is art I’ve experienced firsthand.”
So, now, Peggy, what other pieces of art would go in your museum?

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by the oh!-so-supportive Mary Lee at A Year of Reading. Be sure to visit her blog and leave a comment…she always has something wonderful to say!

5 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: “The Starry Night” Sexton and other Ekphrases for Peg

  1. I’ll have to come back and read this when my pupils have returned to a normal size (dilation at the eye doc this afternoon). I love Starry Night AND I love ekphrases!!

  2. It’s interesting to think about how seeing a painting in person changes your feelings about it. JMW Turner would definitely be in my memory museum collection. As a teenager, I went to D.C. on a field trip with my French class to see a French impressionist collection — it completely blew me away. I would want to put the whole thing in my memory museum.

  3. I wrote a whole series of poems inspired by painting that hang in the National Museum of Women’s Art in DC… only I wrote them from a postcard book! Only later (couple of years after the book was published) did I get to view the paintings in person. You’re right, I would have written different poems! (Partly from being in a different place in my life, but also the details that stand out are different from a different perspective.) Thank you for sharing!

  4. Needless to say, I love everything about this post, Colette. The art, the music, and the poem all work together to deepen my appreciation for each. Maybe I’ll have time to go visit the painting in person this week. (It won’t be the same without you, though.)

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