I have been discussing some of Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography with the students in my First Year Composition classes lately, and her comments about the way that photographic images fragment our modern sense of reality have made me think about how the same ideas might apply to poetry. Though our sense of the “real” in reading a poem is more diffused than the expectation of strict verisimilitude that we have in looking at photographs, a poem can, in some way, still be thought of as a lens or a frame through which we are given a curated glimpse into an event, thought, or world.
That poetry often operates by means of drawing the reader’s attention to particular images also means that the poet, like the photographer, has the power to privilege certain pieces of information over others. Our received records of history are often read into, and drawn from, the text of poems (however fairly or unfairly). How many history textbooks illustrate, for example, the pathos of Lincoln’s death with an excerpt of Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d“? Or the sense of collective disillusionment that pervaded the post WWI era, with Eliot’s “The Hollow Men“? This is not to take issue, of course, with the integration of literature into the teaching of history. Poetry and fiction can serve as important cultural artifacts. The difficulty, I think, lies in the temptation to take a poem as a full or whole accounting of a particular historical narrative, when—just as with any piece of literature—no poem can (nor should it) reasonably attempt to encompass an event. A poem, like a photograph, is simply a frame by which we are given a glimpse into a particular moment. And the poet in particular, because of the tightness of gaze necessitated by his or her craft, resides within the same sort of obsession with detail that Sontag describes in photographs:
“In the view that defines us as modern, there are an infinite number of details. Photographs are details. Therefore, photographs seem like life. To be modern is to live, entranced, by the savage autonomy of the detail” (from “Photography: A Little Summa,” in At the Same Time).
As with every curated image or set of images, there are always people and actions and objects that reside in the negative space, and outside the frame. And as people of color, our eyes are constantly trained upon that negative space. I remember how, during my first Asian American History class in college, Prof. Gordon Chang directed our attention to a painting of the Stanford family. He was not interested in the main subjects of the painting—the railroad magnate and his well-dressed companions, picnicking on a lawn—but in a barely discernable figure in the background, a man whose face was half in shadow: the Stanfords’ clearly non-white (more specifically, Chang argues, Chinese) house servant. Writing ourselves into the canon, or looking for ourselves in the spaces of images and poems and stories that are blurred or out of focus, is a practice in which we engage on a daily basis, and one which is important, not only to the telling of history, but to the meaning and vitality of our craft.
Today’s prompt has two options:
1. Write an ekphrastic poem that engages with the negative space of a photograph or painting. What might be going on that is unseen? Who might be behind walls or milling in a dark background? What are their names, and stories?
2. Write a poem that engages with the “negative space” of another poem. Who has been left out of the poetic “frame”? Who lurks at the corners of the original poem’s images and syntax? Why are they left out of the space of the poem? How might the poem have unfolded differently, if told in that person’s or those people’s voice(s)?