Photography and Poetry

The past few months I have been contemplating the relationship between photography and poetry/short fiction. The narrative poverty of photography versus the purely textual forms of poetry and fiction; and yet photographic images often invoke a poetic emotion within, and a poem has the ability to fill our minds with images.

If presented with the question "How can I become a better Photographer?", I have come to believe one of the best answers is... "Read as much poetry and short fiction as possible !" Find your photographic eye not from other photographers or painters, but from the poets and writers who touch your soul.

I stumbled across this in the book The Design of Poetry by Charles B. Wheeler, from the first chapter, titled What is Poetry?. Read it first as it is written, then read it again, but this time apply it to photography instead of poetry.


What is Poetry?

Three mistakes commonly made in defining poetry are to define it by (1) subject matter, (2) form, or (3) mode of apprehension. The first two of these can be dealt with very briefly. The main reason why neither the subject matter of poetry nor its form (verse form, choice of words, or verbal structure) can be used as a basis for a definition is that poets have written on too wide a range of subjects and in too many different forms. In such a variety it is impossible to find a set of common characteristics a definition would require, nor is there any reason to believe that new subjects and forms cannot always be added to those existing, regardless of precedent. The definition in terms of subject matter is particularly vulnerable because it implies that all a poet has to do is choose a "poetic" subject if he wants to write a poem. This is simply not true. It makes no difference whether one conceives of the subject narrowly or broadly- whether, for example, the subject of Burns's familiar poem is said to be a louse on a lady's bonnet or (at the other extreme) the spectacle of human vanity- as long as the subject is extracted from the totality of the poem and considered per se it will fail to show any characteristics that could not as well be adapted to prose. When a poem from a foreign language is translated into English prose, as sometimes happens, it is the subject matter that remains more or less intact and the poetry that disappears.
The third kind of definition requires more extended scrutiny. By "mode of apprehension" is meant something the way the poet's conception works, something in the way his mind meets the external world and transmutes the mere raw stuff of the senses. This mental operation has been characterized as primitive and magical- even when it takes place in a civilized society- because of being a throwback to much earlier times, when man was not prevented by the accumulation of his own artifacts from meeting nature face to face, when his capacity for wonder had not been enfeebled by too long an acquaintance with trivialities nor his spiritual palate jaded by overstimulation. The typical mode of thought then was synthesis, not analysis. Ideas were grand and simple; human sensibility was not split between thinking and feeling, but both were organically combined; language was concrete, not abstract. Instead of drab scientific truth, men had myth: the very names that they gave to things were poetry. In our own age, the argument goes, the poet is best able to recapture this earlier state, while the rest of us are mainly dependent upon him for whatever glimpses of celestial light we can obtain.


The Design of Poetry
Charles B. Wheeler
W. W. Norton & Company (1966)
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