Consider the extraordinary C.D. Wright, who in “Pictures Never Taken but Received” compares poetry to photography in order to help us understand an aspect of writing that is difficult to capture, its social and ethical role. “Photographs,” she tells us, “are a writing of the light.” Then she draws an analogy: photography is to poetry as writing with light is to writing with silence:
The relationship of poetry to silence is as involved as that of photography’s. In photography, silence is a given and an effect. In poetry it is a state of mind and an effect…. Perhaps the greater responsibility lies with poetry,… to sort through the inaudible signals before speaking up.
Photography cleaves the image from darkness so that what cannot be seen becomes visible. Poetry cleaves the image from “the inaudible signals,” what cannot be heard. The “greater responsibility” of poetry is the weighing and sorting of what is not heard in the din of the historical moment, a din curated by the same political class George Orwell took aim at in “Politics and the English Language.”
Why would any of this matter to a novelist? Distinctions among literary forms can be useful. They can also restrict us from accessing different approaches to plot, point-of-view, even the cadence of a sentence. Besides, these distinctions are historical and bound by rather hierarchical assumptions about what constitutes literary high art, who should be allowed to read, and who should be allowed to write. One of the greatest writers in the English tradition, Virginia Woolf, was denied an education by her father on the basis of her gender. He foolishly left her in his library unsupervised. She educated herself and became an iconoclast, a novelist who broke icons, wrote essays that were short stories and novels that were poems. But that will be the topic of my next post, in September.
Whether we are poets or novelists, it is important to understand why Wright points to William Carlos Williams, someone who in her estimation “epitomized the prepared observer.” Williams was, she wrote, a “watcher. A listener. Goat stubborn. Feet-in-the-soil independent.” She shares with Williams a recognition of what I refer to as the landscape and its song perhaps because, having come to this country as a political refugee, I feel a greater sense of the connection between writing and history, especially any history that remains unspoken and unheard. Whatever we call that recognition, it was for Wright the “greater responsibility” of writing. I had that sense the few times I was privileged enough to be in her company. She was an extraordinary poet and teacher who understood the tyranny of image over written language, a usurpation that accelerates over time as we look back over Williams’ life (1883 to 1963) and hers (1949-2016). Both poets were “[g]oat stubborn” in their insistence that listening precedes the image that reconciles, that helps us understand the suffering that binds us together. [Read more…]