Janée J. Baugher: “Public Sale, 1943”
and mini-review of The Ekphrastic Writer


Public Sale, 1943

–after the painting by Andrew Wyeth


Although his truck hasn’t been started in days,
the road to the house is a mess of upturned dirt,
tire tracks from those coming and going.

In their farmhouse, barren cupboards
and unswept floors. The birdsong lace curtains
stiff from rainwater. Wife dead three months.

He gives up the curtains and birds.
He can’t recall how the sheer fabric
would flutter about the open windows.

The apron with batter on it from her last cake,
and the image of her coaxing flour through the sifter –
flour powdering the yellow bowl. He gives up the bowl,

sifter, and Sunday dresses, here in this valley
where strangers take from him things he must give up.
She would never have agreed to this.

He saves her taste for green apples, though,
and her mother’s doilies. Her desire for a son,
he holds that. He keeps her cheeks that blushed

when he caught her with the sickly calf in the parlor,
feeding it a bottle, and whispering words into its ear.
He never asked her for those words, but those, too, he keeps.

Come summer, her cornflowers will bloom white, pink, blue.


“Public Sale, 1943” originally appeared in The Southern Review, Vol. 53, No. 4.


Janée J.Baugher is the author of The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland 2020), available for order here, as well as two ekphrastic poetry collections, Coördinates of Yes (Ahadada Books 2010) and The Body’s Physics (Tebot Bach 2013). Her writing has been published in journals such as Tin House, The Southern Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Nano Fiction, and The Writer’s Chronicle, and she’s read from her books at the Library of Congress. She holds degrees from Boston University and Eastern Washington University, has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and has been awarded residencies at Soaring Gardens (PA), the Island Institute (AK), the Silver Creek Writers’ Residency (ID), the Marble House Project (VT), the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony (CA), and the North Cascades Institute (WA). She regularly collaborates with choreographers, dancers, composers, and visual artists, and her work has been adapted for the stage and set to music at the University of Cincinnati–Conservatory of Music, the Contemporary Dance Theatre in Ohio, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Dance NOW! Miami, The Salon at Justice Snow’s in Colorado, Otterbein University, and the University of North Carolina–Pembroke. Baugher teaches Creative Writing in Seattle and is currently a submission reader for the literary journal Boulevard. www.janeebaugher.com


Here are some resources if you would like more information about ekphrasis:


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Previous Poetry Sunday columns have touched on the subject of ekphrastic poetry, but this week I want to dive into the subject more deeply. This column will discuss an ekphrastic poem, “Public Sale, 1943” by Janée J. Baugher, and then will take a look at Baugher’s new nonfiction book, The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland 2020). I met Baugher when we both attended Bread Loaf in 2008, and I was delighted to hear about her book, the first I know of to tackle ekphrastic writing in a practical and comprehensive way.

Ekphrasis is writing about other forms of art, typically visual art, though poets also write ekphrastic poems about music, dance, and other arts. The “shield of Achilles passage” in Book 18, lines 478–608 of Homer’s Iliad has been called the first example of an ekphrastic poem. Here are the first few lines from the Fagles translation:

And first Hephaestus 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,
and across its vast expanse with all his craft and cunning
the god creates a world of gorgeous immortal work.

The shield was a figment of Homer’s imagination, but Homer’s description conjures an image so vivid that it has assumed an independent existence as a piece of visual art itself, inspiring other works of art. In an interesting twist, contemporary artists have created actual shields (here) based on Homer’s description, and it is fun to imagine those shields going on, perhaps to inspire other poems.

A well-known example of an ekphrastic poem inspired by Homer’s ekphrastic passage is W.H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Here, we have ekphrasis from ekphrasis—a fictive piece of visual art (Homer’s imagined shield) giving rise to a passage of poetry in the Iliad that in turn inspires Auden’s poem. However, where Homer found beauty and power in the shield, Auden found horror and desolation in what ultimately becomes an anti-war poem. As Auden’s poem shows, modern ekphrastic poetry tends to eschew elaborate description for a deeper engagement with the artwork and sometimes with the artist who created it. Contemporary ekphrastic poets routinely interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to and for the artworks that inspire them.

For example, when I consider ekphrasis, I think of Robert Browning’s persona poems, blank-verse dramatic monologues spoken by powerful artists or art patrons from history. My favorite is “My Last Duchess,”, a terrifying poem in which readers find themselves wondering if the duke might have murdered the wife whose portrait he so arrogantly displays. “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” are others I recall from my college days.

Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” transcends description to engage deeply with an ancient sculpture to capture the transformative power of art; the poem’s epiphanic ending (“You must change your life”) has inspired writers and artists ever since. Another Auden poem, “Musee de Beaux Arts,” begins with a description of Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, but then undertakes a deeper exploration of the human condition. John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” draws on Ashbery’s art critic background to mimic an essay about a 1524 Parmigianino painting and is regarded as an ekphrastic masterpiece. “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton uses Van Gogh’s painting as a starting point for a meditation on depression, and Lisel Meuller’s poem “Monet Refuses the Operation” takes on the persona of Monet to recast the infirmities of aging in a strange and wonderful light.

A more hot-off-the-press example of ekphrasis is Be Holding (Pittsburgh Press 2020) by Ross Gay, a book-length poem whose structure follows a frame-by-frame analysis of the video of Dr. J’s “The Move” in the 1980 NBA finals. In a sense, the entire book is ekphrastic, with poem sections inspired by individual frames acting as still photographs. Actual photographs are also included in the book, an approach that brings the drama of basketball to life. Victoria Chang’s “Edward Hopper Study: Hotel Room” is a short, pungent poem that vividly describes Hopper’s painting of a hotel room at the same time it conjures a narrative about the woman abandoned in it.

These examples are not meant to be exhaustive, and I offer them to illustrate how far ekphrasis has come from its early incarnation as only a detailed description of a piece of art. Ekphrastic poetry seems to be popular now, and there are entire journals (e.g. The Ekphrastic Review and Ekphrasis Magazine) and issues of journals devoted to this work, as well as many anthologies. A gorgeous art book anthology just out last year, The Map of Every Lilac Leaf: Poets Respond to the Smith College Museum of Art, features an introduction and poem by Mark Doty and poems by contemporary poets including Elizabeth Alexander, Richard Blanco, Billy Collins, Ada Limón, Diane Suess, Patricia Smith, and Gerald Stern. The title, by the way, is from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Mourning Picture,” the first poem in the collection.

Baugher’s book includes a deceptively simple definition for ekphrasis: “the verbal representation of a visual representation [page 15].” An ekphrastic poem can work in different ways, and there are many possible paths to take when writing more than a mere description of a particular artwork—say, a painting. A poet can stay close to the painting, teaching readers how to see it or a new way to see it. The painting might evoke a mood that the poem then explores. The poet might imagine the artist in the process of creating the painting, or the artist’s response to how it is viewed today. The poet might write in the artist’s voice or in conversation with the artist. A character or an object from the painting might become the subject of the poem or be used to construct a narrative, and that is the approach in this week’s poem.

“Public Sale, 1943” was inspired by (and takes its title from) the painting shown below by Andrew Wyeth.

Andrew Wyeth “Public Sale, 1943,” tempera on panel

Maybe it is because I am from Pennsylvania, but I have long loved Andrew Wyeth’s bleak rural landscapes. Public Sale, 1943 shows masterful cinematic composition. It’s a striking establishing shot, and a “cannily economical” way of composing a story and scene. [Source here] One art critic describes Public Sale, 1943 as “a sad, distant view of a crowd gathered for the auction of a neighbor’s home after his wife’s death” and makes the point that it is unique among Wyeth’s paintings for expressing a communal or “social consciousness” normally absent from his work. [Id.] In this case, the artwork itself strongly suggests a narrative and thus opens one possible door for ekphrasis.

“Public Sale, 1943” is free verse organized into seven tercets and a closing singleton line for a total of 22 lines. There is no end rhyme and little internal rhyme, but sounds are repeated in the form of consonance (tire tracks, whispering words) and anaphora, discussed below. Even though most lines have three or four beats, meter is irregular, partly because of the high incidence of a number of compound kenning-like nouns (tire tracks, farmhouse, cupboard, birdsong, cornflower) that insert spondees into many of these lines.

The first stanza is introductory and stays close to the details of the painting, describing what anyone can see: many tire tracks rutting the road and marking the grass. Imagination comes in, though, with the very first line. To say “his truck hasn’t been started in days” is to assume a man who may or may not be one of the figures seen in the painting and also to assume—or imagine—the truck belongs to him and has not been driven in a while. Even though many details in this stanza can be verified in the painting, the poet has already begun to depart from it and to make something new.

The imaginative journey deepens in the second stanza when the poet conjures her way into something we cannot see in the painting: the inside of the farmhouse. These details—the curtains stiff from rain, the barren cupboards and unswept floors—are pure poetic fancy, and they powerfully communicate the farmer’s grief that will be articulated later in the poem. I am guessing that the poet learned about that bereavement from researching the painting, always a fertile source for ekphrastic writing. In an example of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative, these early and very bleak details of the setting become an outer expression and foreshadowing of the man’s inner grief.

One engine of this poem’s momentum is anaphora, or repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences or lines. It begins in the third stanza with “He gives,” a phrase that is repeated in line 12 and echoed in “give up” in line 14. Another anaphoric series is set up with “He saves,” “he holds,” and “He keeps” in lines 11, 16, and 18. In this case, the anaphora is structural (parallel syntax) and subtle, but the ear still registers it, especially here where the repetitions are so close together.

Once the “he gives” series begins, the poem picks up momentum and goes more deeply into the man’s memories of his wife, accessed through his giving her things over to the impending auction. He relinquishes the things that, for some reason, no longer hold memories for him. But, in recounting to the reader what the man “can no longer recall,” the poem in a sense restores those memories. There are lovely images in these lines, and I was especially struck by the apron with batter still on it and how that spun up a luminous memory of the wife sifting flour for a cake.

By the time we get to stanza 5 in about the middle of the poem, the narrative is going full-bore. Just from looking at Wyeth’s painting, the poet has built a story with a backstory. Lines 14–15 give some explanation about why the sale is taking place—it is not by choice, and I figure it is something like bankruptcy or needing money for taxes or funeral expense.

After cataloging in detail the wife’s possessions the man has decided to let go, the poem turns in its last three stanzas to list, instead, the things he will “save.” Except for “her mother’s doilies,” all the things the man decides to keep are ephemera: his wife’s “taste for green apples,” her blushing cheeks when she bottle-fed a calf in the parlor, and the endearments she whispered in that wonderful, tender moment. That parlor scene is so powerful and positive that it turns everything around, and instead of ending in a place of loss, the poem ends in a place of rebirth: “Come summer, her cornflowers will bloom white, pink, blue.” Like the painting, the poem embraces beauty at the same time it holds a terrible sense of loss, qualities that embody that essential Wyeth quality of gorgeous desolation. I loved the chance to experience it visually as well as through language, my favorite artistic medium.

The Ekphrastic Writer, a new book written by Baugher, is a guidebook that comprehensively treats the subject of ekphrasis at the same time it provides an inspiring and practical guide to those who aspire to practice it.

Baugher stresses in the introduction that the book’s “primary focus is on process” rather than product. The book includes many examples of ekphrastic poems along with the art that inspired them, presented to illustrate and categorize broader principles about ekphrasis as well as to serve as models for writers. The Ekphrastic Writer takes an unconventional approach, musing its way into its discoveries and touching on a number of related subjects including early art engagement, psychology, and eye-brain-perception. Its organization is associative, under broad chapter headings such as “History, Criticism, and Conventions,” “Art Forms,” and “Museums.” Every chapter and page brims with efforts to engage the reader, not just in understanding the concepts but by participating in activities such as viewing recommended art, studying and imitating models, and writing to prompts.

Baugher calls the book “an invitation to marvel in the deep wonderment of the visual arts and to see how that marveling might ignite your writing,” and I have already experienced some of that from trying some of the prompts. I keep thinking about how fishermen can train their eyes to read water in order to know when the fish are about to strike. This book, it seems to me, can teach writers how to do something like that, and it also kind of hands them the river and the fish in it. All you need is an image—a photo or a painting, a bit of clip art, a postage stamp—and the skill to see it clearly and creatively, and then this book shows the way.

I agree that learning more about engaging with art can inspire self-reflection and creativity in writers, but it occurs to me there are other, non-writer, lessons to be learned here. “Any subject, I now know, can be taught using the visual arts as a starting point,” Baugher asserts in the book’s introduction. Learning how to read art by way of “deep-looking,” it seems to me, can lead to a more creative way of seeing that could be applied to a number of other areas of human endeavor, and maybe, even to a way of life.


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