An exploration of the intersections between poetry and photography is an act of defining terms. It is a process of identification. Of a question. But it does not entail an answer, necessarily. How does one align such disparity between mediums that can only be connected through recourse to metaphors? How does one move past the traditional alignment of image and word that tends to emphasise precisely this dislocation? To begin, we must ask ourselves what these mediums actually are, at heart, and then what they can be together? Finally, what is the purpose of their combination? What can they do together? And why is it relatively rare to see a cohesive combination of the two - with fidelity to poetry that isn’t just text, or discourse, or opinion, and photography that isn’t just pictorial?
I have had the fortune to collaborate with musicians, poets, writers, sculptors, composers, visual artists, performance artists, actors and photographers. Collaborating not through the shaping of previous text to my collaborators’ ideas or pre-existing visual work for a reading or performance; but collaboration as a shared process towards something new to us both at the close of our communication. Something that is as intertwined in method, technique and concept as it is in output. Of course many of these works might be said to have begun before I met those people, somewhere in the dormant regions of the mind, but not knowingly have I ever perceived collaboration as being something dredged up from the past, precisely because I would conceive that as against my purpose. The context for writing is the collaboration, permissive and pedagogical. It all happens together and at the same time. And in doing so we share the blame for whatever it is we are making together. I have worked with singers, whose practice gave me fear of public humiliation, to make sound pieces; poets whose work with form have led me to create experimental structures beyond my own capability; sculptors whose three-dimensional processes taught me about space and density. From all these collaborations the medium I have learned least about is photography. It is no accident that when photography is combined or aligned with poetry, the results tend to be predictable.
This is not necessarily because of the utterly different characteristics of the two mediums. Instead I would say it's because one of the least explored questions asked by those who are not poets is what poetry actually is. what is poetry that is no other thing? A space to investigate a paradox, an exploration of the information contained in language whose primary purpose is not information. The musician works in sound but describes it in language. The sculptor works in material but comments in language. The painter in paint, but justifies in language. Language, then, is the paint of a poet, the sound, the material, and it must be aware that all the talk, commentary and justification that surrounds it, does so in the very same substance, and the difference between these two things is where poetry comes into being. As fiction and non-fiction have, by definition, lengthiness as part of their substance (this, aside from language, is the only thing that might define them), so they are inclined to relay information with semantic emphasis towards narrative, storytelling, argumentation and so forth. They are innately more open to this than poetry, as the poem is almost unanimously short and concentrated.
This is obviously not to say that poetry should be nonsensical but that it reaches beyond the declarative out toward something else. It doesn’t tell us what to think, literally, no more than a piece of music, sculpture, or painting might. It requires interpretation, as all things worth knowing do. It is driven by the miracle of language itself; it is a reflection of the ape’s wondrous ability to speak. It is a celebration of paradox, of using the communicative tool to go beyond mere communication, as humans have always longed to do.
This is why poetry is employed more as a metaphor for other things than a thing in itself. In light of this; we must ask what is the fundamental connection between poetry and photography? Perhaps there is none, unless one recounts to metaphor. There is no methodological connection, nothing literally that binds them. The gaze of the photographer and the gaze of the poet, they are not enjoined. They sit apart and leave us asking, what is photography that is no other thing?
Whatever the answer there is a lacuna between these two arts, which needs to be acknowledged before real hybridity might be achieved. What is most typically found within this chasm are attempts at reconciliation without acknowledgement. We see a kind of tennis match between the image and the word. The photo dominates, often literally leading, flat upon a page, or pasted in above on the website, and the poem follows, responding, often quite deliberately, mentioning things in the photograph. It is often a depiction and then a description. Each horse in its own stable, lined up before the race, pretending they are both not trying to bolt.
What then can reach beyond this dialectic, produced by misdiagnosis? This is the purpose of spending six weeks, in a lab of sorts, workshopping ideas, reflecting upon historical and contemporary examples, attempting new methodologies, refocusing upon notions of illustration, intersemiotic translation, mimesis, hybridity, simultaneity, narrative, rhetoric. It is why we are to do it as a collective, sharing works and ideas, to purpose, pooling experiments to come to a small but cogent understanding of what these two mediums might be able to do in alignment. In search of this, the first question I have asked participants on the course is whether they think they think in words or in images? Attempting to ask these questions, aware we will not be able to answer, will make us better poets and better photographers, and maybe, something in between.
Steven J Fowler is a writer and artist. He lead the course The Written Eye: Poetry & Photography at The Photographers' Gallery from 25 April to 30 May 2018