A friend commented that he struggled to write a poem in response to an event that he was able to photograph (and here photography is used as a documentary witness, not a deliberately staged photograph such as a model’s photoshoot or promotional photography). It prompted me to think about an occasion where I wanted to take a photograph of a scene but my camera was at the bottom of a rucksack so I committed the scene to memory and wrote “Sunlight: North Dublin” based on the scene instead. I suspect the choice between taking a photograph or writing a poem will be influence by personal preference and whether an individual feels more comfortable/skilled at photography or poetry, but either approach has advantages and disadvantages.
A photograph is contemporary to an event, making it an immediate response. A series of photographs can follow the unfolding of an event. A poet can scribble observational notes, but writing a good poem takes time, so a poem can lack the immediacy offered by a photograph.
A photograph offers a limited view. It is dependent on the stance of the photographer in relation to the event and the limitations of the camera. Does the photograph choose a wide angle to capture a whole crowd, thus losing some of the detail, or zoom in to a specific person or group and lose the sense of scale? A poem can do both. A poem can also move backwards and forwards in time, mentioning what happened before and after a photograph was taken.
A photograph’s colour can be enhanced or subdued, reduced to monochrome, filtered or given a sepia tint, thus influencing how a viewer sees the event. A poet also acts as an editor, guiding a reader towards a specific response to the event. But when a poet says “cobalt” you know exactly which shade of blue to visualise. Getting two viewers to agree on what specific shade of blue the sky in a photograph is will be a harder task.
A photograph is both a creator and trigger of memories. It records a scene and later acts as a reminder. A poem is written from memory (whether notes scribbled at the scene or images remembered afterwards) and in creating the poem, some elements of the scene may be omitted or the centre of focus shifts to the sidelines in order to make the poem.
Here’s my poem (from “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”):
Sunlight: North Dublin
stops me here momentarily
looking up at a tenement block.
Damp babygros, teenagers’ jeans,
mums’ skirts hang on improvised
washing lines on thin balconies.
Each floor sinks into the one below.
Each wall home to graffiti tags.
Rubbish stirs in the breeze.
The sunlight seems stronger
for being squeezed in the gap
between this block and a stark silhouette
of a city-grime encrusted church
putting these lives in shadow.
Would you have preferred the photograph?