Poetry and Photography

It’s been my good fortune over the past year to teach a class on “Poetry and Photography” via the Camera Club’s ongoing education series. To be honest, though I have an MFA in poetry, my knowledge of photography was spotty at best. Having now done the class three times, I feel like I’ve had my own education on how photography works and how it correlates to my own creative process. So much of our work in the class involves talking about the similarities between the two art forms and the majority of the writing prompts we use are simply ways to use poetry—specifically, the writing of poetry—as a way to interpret, examine, and respond to photography. As it turns out, this is really nothing new. There is a ton of amazing poetry specifically about photography and one could easily assemble an entire anthology based solely on poems that respond to photos (someone should do that, if they haven’t already).

Like I said, teaching this class has been a powerful learning experience for me. Not only have I gained a new appreciation and perspective on photography, I’ve also been able to meet and work with some amazingly talented human beings (several of whom have now taken the class more than once). Since the folks at the Camera Club have kindly asked me to be a guest blogger this month, I’m using this space to post some poems that we’ve read in our class, as well as some images and videos that somehow relate to the topic. I’ll also be using it as a space to simply share some poems that I love.

If this somehow piques your curiosity, the “Poetry and Photography” class will be happening again later this month, beginning on October 28th. Please look HERE for information on how to sign up.

As a way of getting started, here is a Sharon Olds poem that we read in the class. This is kind of a perfect example of a poem that seeks to unpack the hidden meanings and personal ramifications that remain locked inside of a photograph.
I Go Back to May 1937
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
Sharon Olds, “I Go Back to May 1937” from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002. Copyright © 2004 by Sharon Olds. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Source: Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

And here’s a photo of Sharon Olds. She is amazing.