“A Carriage from Sweden” by Marianne Moore is a sixty-line poem of twelve five-line stanzas celebrating the beauty of a Swedish country cart as well as the virtues of the nation in which it was made. The poet’s words raise a utilitarian folk artifact into a museum masterpiece. Thus the poem is an example of ekphrasis (Greek for “to speak out”), the verbal representation of a visual work of art, as a painting or sculpture. Its technique of alternating description and interpretation can be compared with the pure ekphrasis of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the art object exists solely and wholly in words, and with W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which uses several paintings but centers finally upon Pieter Bruegel, the Elder’s “Landscape with Fall of Icarus.” Had not the Swedish carriage been sold from the Brooklyn museum where Moore first saw it, and subsequently lost, a photograph of it could accompany the poem for comparison.
Ekphrastic poetry involves the remaking of a made thing. Imagery is largely visual as the reader is invited to see the art object from different perspectives. The object is not only described but also interpreted for the reader, who should be alert for the movement from one sort of rhetoric to the other. Even acts of description become interpretation, however, for the poet’s selectivity sets thematic priorities. The poet may emphasize, exaggerate, distort, or even omit details of the art object. In the case of the carriage from Sweden, the vehicle made in words by a Brooklyn poet is every bit as impressive as the wooden vehicle made in Scandinavia. Indeed, Moore’s theme is the integrity of well-made things, whether carts or arts. Behind every line of the poem (Greek for poema, “created thing”) lies the notion of the poet (Greek for poietes, “maker”) as creator, maker of a made thing, as well as the forces that make it poetic (Greek for poietikos, “inventive, ingenious”).