Monday, August 1, 2016

August Poetry Challenge - Portrait Poems

 Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo
Sir Anthony van Dyck, 1623
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
The Flemish painter, Sir Anthony van Dyck spent time in Genoa improving his art and painting upper class women, including Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo. Notice how he presents the Marchesa. As you look at the painting, which is in The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., you have no question about this woman’s status in life. The architecture of her home and her stiff, elegant posture emphasize it. The National Gallery website says, “The red sunshade held aloft extends her presence, forming a halo about her head that contrasts against a dramatic sky and emphasizes our position beneath hers.”

Genoa played a significant role in the slave trade, something the artist could not ignore. The National Gallery website comments on the presence of the African “attendant.” “His inclusion in her portrait probably has an artistic source in the Italian Renaissance artist Titian, whom Van Dyck admired and who portrayed black servants in his canvases.” In this portrait, the African serving the needs of the marchesa emphasizes her wealth and sense of entitlement. (You can read more about this painting at

Boy in a Red Waistcoat
Paul Cézanne, 1888-1890
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Now look at “The Boy in the Red Waistcoat” by Paul Cezanne. This boy does not look as though he considers himself entitled or better than others. To me, he looks wistful and uncertain. As The National Gallery says, “The round-brimmed hat, positioned high on his head gives him a certain naiveté, and the mussed bangs make him seem young, even vulnerable. He appears pale and pensive, his small mouth formed faintly, in Shapiro’s words, like the wings of a distant bird.” Cezanne did not feel a need for the more momentous kind of background van Dyke drew on to portray his subject.

What’s more, this young man is not the Italian peasant boy he is pictured to be. He is a professional model, and thus a “made-up” subject. (Read more at

Portrait Poems:

Some poems are snapshots of a moment in time. Others are photographs or portraits of individuals. They show us someone who startles us, annoys us, makes us smile. Someone we recognize seem to recognize. Someone who moves us in some way.

I am very fond of the following portrait poem by Chicago-area poet Myron Stokes.

The Whittler

On the porch of a tin-roof shanty,
the whittler whittles with patient tenderness.
His hands, dark as sorghum molasses
are nicked and marred
from cotton’s wicked thorns.
He chips and gouges,
reveals the cedar’s salmon-hued grain.
Fragrant bark tumbles in Aida Mae’s hollyhocks.
He whittles below the sun’s molten glare,
sips chilled well water from his jelly jar.
A bewildered butterfly appears on noiseless wings,
keeps him company for moments.
A gust of wind turns the weathervane
and the sheets, white as dogwood
undulate on the line.
Aida Mae’s cornhusk broom scratches the floor.
She sings, “Blessed Assurance.”
He hums along,
chipping and gouging,
tendrils of wood at his feet.
A liquid moon moves over the towering pines.
The hollyhocks are asleep for the night,
their perfume still, without the fire of the sun.
He rises from his cane-bottom chair,
brushes bits of cedar from his chest and lap.
The house is quiet,
bathed in silver moonlight.
On the cookstove, chicken, rice, biscuits,
and a pone of spicy potato pudding.
He whispers grace,
sups silently on the gingham oilcloth.
He sheds, with his overalls, the long day.
Makes his way to the pine-scented sheets
and Aida Mae’s arms.

~ Myron L. Stokes

“The Whittler” was first published in the Ellen LaForge Poetry Pize Jourrnal, 2007. "The Whittler" won Most Highly Commended Award in the 2012 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Poetry Contest.

I respond to the rich descriptive phrases in this poem. Stokes uses the whittler’s home, activities, and spouse to help us visualize the whittler and understand the personality, in ways that are similar to van Dyke’s artistic technics. Notice, too, how many of the senses are used in his poem. I feel as though I can see this whittler. I cannot tell from reading the poem whether this whittler is someone in Stokes’ family, someone he saw while driving by the porch in the poem, or someone he has created as Cezanne created the boy in his painting. Many people appreciate Cezanne’s painting whether or not they know the boy is a professional model; we can appreciate this portrait poem without knowing the identity of the whittler, and whether he is someone known personally by the poet. There is so much truth in the picture Stokes has drawn that only an academic study of Stokes’ poetry would require knowledge of that fact.

Mary Jo Balistreri, a Wisconsin poet, drew a word picture of her father:

Ancient Ritual

Dad, in his long blue robe
and thinning steel-gray hair,
enters the spotless kitchen
in worn-slippered feet.
Shadowed dawn
announces its presence,
releases the closed petals
of sleep to the templed rhythm
of a new day.
Dad opens the cupboard
with care, removes
a cherry-blossom plate—
his mother’s best.
Setting the breakfast table,
he arranges the porcelain dishes
just so, creates a spring garden
at each setting forever green,
each branched bloom reaching
toward light.
A Buddhist monk, he walks
within his life,
treads slow measured steps,
gives attention to each detail
as if it were new.
He pours brewed tea, concentrates
on the steady stream pooling
in the bone-thin cups,
follows the steam
as it drifts upward like incense.
This ancient rite of morning began
in my childhood, and I watch again
as Dad walks to the draped window
to pull open the day. For a moment,
he will stand enfolded in mountain sun,
before he turns to me and says,
Isn’t it fine.

~ Mary Jo Balistreri

“Annual Ritual” was originally appeared in Bellowing Ark

We watched the whittler end his day. We watch the dad in this poem as he “walks to the draped window / to pull open” a new day with his morning ritual. Again, I can see the subject of this portrait poem in my mind’s eye, smell his tea, and—it seems—understand something of his personality.

I know this is really a poem about Balistreri’s dad because she told me so. I like the way he is set in a curtained kitchen with flowered dishes, and steam rising above tea cups “like incense,” and how that incense and the man’s slow, contemplative movements turn him into a monk in the poet’s eyes.

In both of these poems, the subject is set in his surroundings in the way many great portrait painters set their subjects. The whole atmosphere of the poem helps us sense the personality of the subject.

Shorter Portrait Poems:

Former Poet Laureate of the U.S., Ted Kooser, has written a number of poems he calls “snapshots.” Some of these are “snapshots” of people. You can read “The Skater” at At you can read “Tattoo,” a picture of a man at a garage sale. You can hear Kooser read “Tattoo,” and two other poems I would categorize as snapshot (or short portrait) poems: “A Rainy Morning,” and “Student, on a You Tube video at

The August Poetry Challenge

The August Poetry Challenge is to draw a word portrait of one person, but not a celebrity or person famous from history, legend, myth, Bible, etc. The poem should provide a portrait of someone you might see somewhere such as in your home or neighborhood, on a train or bus, in the grocery or department store, on a front porch you pass, on the beach or at the county fair. The person whose portrait you write might be a friend, someone you met while traveling, a teacher, or even an imaginary person—if the poem is written convincingly enough. Although the poem is a portrait of one person, you may use another person, activities, and description of place as background that highlight’s the person featured in the poem. No animal portraits and no self-portraits this month.

I want to be able to close my eyes and see the subject of the portrait in my mind on the basis of the details and descriptions you provide. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to tell me the color of his or her eyes and hair, etc. Pick your details to match what you really want to say.

Title your poem. You may give the poem the title of the person about whom you or writing, but need not do so. It may be free or formal verse. If you use a form, please identify the form when you submit your poem. Please single-space, and don’t use lines that are overly long (because the blog format doesn’t accommodate long lines).

You may submit a published if you retain copyright, but please include publication data. This applies to poems published in books, journals, newspapers, or on the Internet. Note that this is a recent change in the rules.

The deadline is August 15. Poems submitted after the deadline will not be considered. There is no charge to enter, so there are no monetary rewards; however winners are published on this blog. Please don’t stray too far from “family-friendly” language. No simultaneous submissions, please. You should know by the end of the month whether or not your poem will be published on this blog. Decision of the judge or judges is final.

Copyright on each poem is retained by the poet. If a winning poem is published elsewhere later, please give credit to this blog.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send one poem only to wildamorris[at]ameritech[dot]net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for “dot”) . Include a brief bio which can be printed with your poem, if you are a winner this month.

Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner, so be sure that you put your name (exactly as you would like it to appear if you do win) at the end of the poem. Poems may be pasted into an email or sent as an attachment (no pdf files, please). Please do not indent the poem or center it on the page. It helps if you submit the poem in the format used on the blog (Title and poem left-justified; title in bold (not all in capital letters); your name at the bottom of the poem). Also, please do not use spaces instead of commas in the middle of lines. I have no problem with poets using that technique (I sometimes do it myself). However I have difficulty getting the blog to accept and maintain extra spaces.

Poems shorter than 40 lines are generally preferred but longer poems will be considered.

Mary Jo Balistreri has two book of poetry published by Bellowing Ark Press, a chapbook by Tiger's eye Press, and a small book in their Infinities Series. (haiku) She has nine Pushcart nominations and four Best of the Net. She is a founding member of Grace River Poets, an outreach for school, churches, and women's centers. Please visit her at

Myron Stokes served in the US Air force for eight years, and is a readjustment counseling therapist for combat veterans. His poetry focuses on family, the South, the military experience, nature, life, death, God, love, and other themes that capture his attention. He is an active member of Poets and Patrons of Chicago, Illinois State Poetry Society, and the Oak Park Writers Group. One of his goals is to publish a poem in The New Yorker.

© Wilda Morris