One of the first poems I wrote was about a photograph. It was taken on holiday when my friends and I went to stay on the Kent coast: teenagers with dyed hair, newly pierced ears and in my case heavy acne. In the photograph we shiver round a pile of tight jeans, towels and tasseled scarves. I’ve been writing about beaches ever since. They are a liminal space, caught between being touched by sea and being called land. These photographs catch that sense of being blurred between two states of belonging; a hazy photograph of adolescents running away from the determined, concrete city to get drunk in the sand between childhood and university.
There is a difference between writing from a photograph and writing about one: writing from a photograph means extrapolating outward from a moment, beyond its frame, rather than writing about a photograph which is just describing what is happening, being hemmed in by the borders of the camera lens. In his essay ‘On Poetry and Conflict’, poet and essayist Michael Symmons Roberts notes
the [conflict] between music and image. The phrase that sounds perfect to your ear may not evoke the image in your mind’s eye.
The music here is not literal music, it is the sound, the weight, the lyricism of the words employed which extrapolate outward from the image. When you write from a photograph you are telling the story behind it: a photograph is still, but a story or poem moves, the details shift. The language a writer uses must be at once specific to the image and able to move beyond the story, outside the frame. The poem I first wrote about this beach tried too hard to be beautiful and plant the right image in the reader’s head: ‘the brown sugar of the shore’ or ‘that fragment of October’ or ‘sand that has browned like tea bags from the weight of the sea’. These phrases don’t sound bad but they just describe the scene, they do not go to the music, the story, the movement beyond the static image. So how as a writer do you overcome the discord between music and image? It’s a matter of focusing the lens. The first attempts are fuzzy and blurred, or they are off kilter, only capturing a corner of that original photo. I needed to find a clearer view point for my poem. And there had to be some ekphrasis, some movement between art forms, a new perspective or focus of the poem that differed from the photograph. Because otherwise what’s the point of the poem? What does it add to the world that the photograph didn’t already provide?
Sometimes the photograph should be left alone. By extension there are some things, some moments in life that should be left alone, shouldn’t be interrupted by the tannoy system in my head whispering ‘take notes’. This is not that first poem I wrote. That first poem had far too much description and not enough music.
The cushioned heels of a morning jogger
push the embers of last night’s bonfire
deeper into the sand, the charred black
driftwood, edged in white ash
crumbles when touched. The fag butts
are curled like sleeping dogs at the bottom
of the fire pit and the ring pulls from beer cans
shine in the dull morning. Last night
you and I stripped off our shoes and socks
baptised our feet in the October tide
returned home with the sin of sand
still clinging to our soles. You’re asleep now
wood smoke hugging your lungs and clothes
8 years later I am back on a beach, this time the Norfolk coast, and my friend Cadi is taking photographs. I wish I could write poems the way Cadi takes photographs. She seems to step back and for a moment be objective, takes her time with the thing she is focusing on - the lobster creels, the skeleton of a boat, the outline of our mate Tom’s head - takes the photograph and then moves on with her life. It is never intrusive to the subject; often you don’t know she’s taking the photograph. More importantly it never feels like Cadi is going out of her way to make art. The art comes as a natural extension of her. As we walk she takes photographs almost literally in her stride.
The Norfolk coast is beautiful, muddy and flat: it makes you feel astonishingly calm, other than the occasional lunatic flight of sparrows, or the determined gallop of a Labrador. You can see so much of the world, unobstructed by hills or buildings, see people miles away, the shadow puppet of a hand waving from the horizon. I keep thinking ‘this would be make a good poem, I should write about this, try and remember it all’ whereas Cadi and her camera just seem to be naturally picking things up, capturing them, and then gets straight back on with walking. I think of Helen Mort in her poem Take Notes:
You pointed to each lit window in town.
Take notes, you said, one day you’ll write this down
It’s true. Most days I plunder what I see
play deaf unless a poem answers me.
What Mort taps into here is the preoccupation we have, writers as well as everyone else, with remembering things. By remembering, I mean creating a narrative for our lives so they become more understandable. For me it helps gain a sense of identity - I use the events or the objects or photographs of my life as benchmarks for progression - and as a writer they are a way of giving my thoughts form. All of my work looks to remember because, as Dorothy Bohm puts it,
The photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes the transience less painful and retains some of the special magic, which I have looked for and found.
However, as I walked with Cadi, I relaxed. I stopped trying to remember things, stopped plundering the mudflats, the flickers of sparrows diving against the wind, the anoraked families that smiled as they passed us, because I trusted that anything Cadi thought worthwhile stopping to photograph were the only things worthwhile writing about later. I put the responsibility of remembering on my friend, in retrospect an unfair burden. Especially as, when I later told her about my fear of forgetting she said ‘I’m so pleased other people are scared too.’ She takes photographs to remember, but when I write I am trying to go beyond securing some image, trying to capture the movement and the feeling of that time and place. I am learning now to trust my memory, to be present in a moment and worry about how to capture it later. It is the strain of trying to remember, the mind pushing beyond the image, that plunders it for meaning.
But in capturing it, in securing and immortalising that moment does something die along with it? Is that photograph all we remember and do the arguments, the kisses, the cigarettes we hid from our parents, stop existing because they weren’t documented? If it didn’t appear on Facebook, did it ever happen? It is the instinct to document lives. We know that memory is a small, fragile thing, easily lost, so in writing or photographing, even if we move further away from a memory or we only capture a corner of it, even if it deadens the memory, it is still made immortal by the work we create. In her memoir Object Lessons, Eavan Boland talks about trying to write about living in the suburbs, she says,
It would be wrong, even now, to say that my poetry expressed the suburb. The more accurate version is that my poetry allowed me to experience it.
This difference between ‘expressing’ and ‘experiencing’ the suburb is the same as writing about a photograph and writing from a photograph: the former describes, the latter expands. Poetry can add movement and emotion to the photograph, to the beach, to the suburb; it can allow us to live the moment, to be present in it and paradoxically to keep it alive after it has passed.
I like poems whose voices are like cameras performing panning shots, rotating on an axis to take in as much of a scene as possible before focusing on the cherry tree, or the tattooed arm, or the empty plate. Poems that go from the cinematic to the photographic; that have the movement and the music of cinema but the attention of still life photography. Take Sharon Olds in her poem, I Go Back to May 1937. She watches her parents
standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air.
Like the opening shot of a Scorsese film, the poem gathers the scene into its field of vision, which seems to dip in and out of the arches, light bouncing off the camera’s lens. The camera swoops under the college gates, picks up the father in its lens, then strolls with him to collect the mother in the frame. It would be a peaceful, idyllic scene of young lovers meeting but for the violent ‘plates of blood behind his head’ or ‘behind her…sword-tips aglow in the May air.’ The speaker moves from these images and imagines a conversation between herself and her parents, a life before she was born. Here is the movement between art forms, where photography shows us the world before we were in it, and Olds’ poetry goes further to imagining action beyond the frame. Ultimately, Olds wants to deliver a warning so the camera delves not only into the scene but the lives that will follow it, until it focuses:
The speaker imagines a conversation between herself and her parents, a life before she was born. Here is the movement between art forms, where photography shows us the world before we were in it, and Olds poetry goes further to imagining action beyond the frame. Ultimately, Olds wants to deliver a warning so the camera delves not only into the scene but the lives that will follow it, until it focuses:
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body
The poem settles on a picture of innocence, but one that is hindered by that compound adjective, ‘untouched’. The word highlights the couple’s virginity whilst at the same time implying the violence that might be done to their bodies in years to come. Yes, these are ‘beautiful’ bodies but they are to be pitied. That word ‘pitied’ and the underlying themes of violence make me think of Wilfred Owen,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled
Now men will go content with what we spoiled
Whilst Owen is talking about the First World War, we can compare this to Olds who is going back to a time just before the Second World War. The violence she imagines happening to her parents is both domestic and global, but the power of the photograph is that within it they will remain ‘untouched’. This is not true of a poem written years later, which is why Olds resigns herself to the futility, the sad inevitability of her parent’s lives:
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
As much as the poem wishes for foresight, it recognises that art is created from retrospect and imagination. The speaker is removed from the reality of this moment, her parents standing at the gate of their college, by time and space. It’s that moment we all have of ‘I wonder what happened after this was taken’: that is where the poetry happens, the harnessing of that thought, giving it shape and form. As poet and photographer Martin Figura says
Photography and poetry share many characteristics and the critical language around them is often interchangeable. They exist within a frame and give experience a shape.
The frame Figura is talking about here is the form of the poem, but I feel poetry goes beyond this, that the final line of Olds’ poem is the speaker relinquishing control, letting the camera fall. Poetry doesn’t matter in that moment, Olds allows herself to become self-referential, relinquishing the omniscience of the lyric narrator: what matters is the task of living, of doing what you are going to do. We can worry about the telling of it later.
I hate the idea of forgetting. I don’t get blind drunk because I am scared of not being unable to remember and therefore not be able to ‘give experience a shape’. I collect all my train tickets because I think I’ll want to remember that trip to Milton Keynes when I was 21. I hoard birthday cards from people I don’t know or like anymore because…well just because. I write poems because they are a good way of keeping track. So are photographs. They freeze that moment in time, and remind me of this Denise Riley line:
Stop. Hold it there. Balance. Be Beautiful. Try.
It makes me think of dancers, or actors in tableaux, or even just a bunch of teenagers posing for cameras, the white noise of the sea behind them, hoping to be remembered, to find immortality on Facebook, in poems, in photographs.
- Bohm, Dorothy, qtd. by Jacob Sam La Rose, In Their Own Words (Ed. Helen Ivory & George Szirtes), Salt (2011)
- Boland, Eavan, Object Lessons, Vintage (1996)
- Figura, Martin, In Their Own Words (Ed. Helen Ivory & George Szirtes), Salt (2011)
- Mort, Helen, Division Street, Chatto & Windus (2003)
- Olds, Sharon, I Go Back to May 1937, Poetry Foundation Website
- Owen, Wilfred, 'Strange Meeting', Poetry Foundation Website
- Riley, Denise, Anthology of British and Irish Poets
- Riley, Denise, Jacket Magazine, Issue 20
- Roberts, Michael Symmons, In Their Own Words (Ed. Helen Ivory & George Szirtes), Salt (2011)