A Meditation on Poetry and Photography


McInnes, Marnie. ‘A Meditation on Poetry and Photography’ Photographies, 5:1 (March 2012) 19-32


In 26 lines describing a fairly ordinary landscape, Atwood encapsulates key paradoxes of photography as a medium; indeed, one way of reading her poem is as a compact essay on the ontology of the photographic image.

As a poem, however it also invites us to think about the relationship between the visual and verbal image and to consider the seldom acknowledged but strong reciprocity between the lyric poem and the photograph.

Set alongside contemporary photographs and photograph installations, Atwood’s poem helps us analyze the process by which we read and respond to an image and its accompanying words.

Atwood’s poem moves us beyond tired analogies – the poem “aspiring to the condition of” the visual, and the reverse – to consider instead how the poem and photograph may reflect on the nature of one another, opening our eyes to experiences that are neither verbal nor visual, exactly. Indeed, the experience of reading a lyric photograph is largely a conceptual one, encouraging reflection on time, place, identity, and subjectivity.


At least two threads are woven together in the metaphysical tangle created in their different ways by Atwood and Whitman’s poems. The first has to do with the play of time and space: the collapse of past, present and future, and the overlay of here and there, me and you. Both poems end with prophetic assertions about what will happen in the future.

Such a direct and emphatic engagement with the imagined reader sets these two poems apart from many others: the entanglement of “I” and “you” overshadows other dimensions of the poem, including its visual images.

As a general rule, lyric poems create speakers whose voices speak from beyond the grave, disembodied voices that create the illusion of a vital, speaking presence. As a general rule, lyric poems weave a web of time.

The second thread, closely related to the first, has to do with presence and absence and the nature of the visible.

Both Atwood and Whitman are centrally concerned with conveying more than the surface of the person (the “me”) and choose to do this precisely by conveying the surface – the surface of water, hills, houses, shipyards in which there is not the least visible trace of “me”.

Atwood and Whitman, in other words, exploit the capacity of poems to convey one set of meanings by way of another: to convey both a surface and a subtext. The surface, in this case, is the set of visual images; the subtext is the meaning which the speaking voice in the poem creates for the “you” who listens and sees. Can photographs do this, too?

Photographs are not inward in the same way as are poems, nor do they convey ideas and arguments as effectively as verbal texts.

Above all, the lyric poem and photograph create a tension between liberation and drowning, between freeing us from and embalming us in time.

Silence is a hallmark of the photograph, yet photographs create the illusion of a speaker and speaking voice more often that one might imagine. Moreover, verbal engagement of the spectator is not simply a recent phenomenon – not a technique, that is, special to the postmodern photographic installation.

An interpretively rich conjunction of words and image occurs, for example, in one of the very earliest photographs: Le Noyé by Hippolyte Bayard.


Photographs, like poems, go both ways: a human presence looks out at you “in unknown ways,” even as you think you are the one looking in.

This reciprocity or face-to-faceness can happen whether or  not the photograph depicts a human face, a landscape, a river, a city street, or a piece of lace.

In this essay, I have been looking at photographs that involve words, and certainly this hybrid genre, which has gained in status and visibility since the 1960s, bridges the gap between poems and visual images.

But the self-conscious use of words in titles, captions, overlays, and footnotes, only makes explicit the verbal, speaking dimension that exists in many evocative photographs whether or not they are accompanied by words.


We apprehend photographic images as ideas and embodiments of consciousness as much as we apprehend them through our sense of sight.


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