Photoetry?

The hazards of a one-to-one relationship between poems and photographs, Paul Muldoon suggests in his introduction to Plan B, can be seen in ‘Monty Python’s spoof news broadcast in which a voice-over refers to ‘the Lord Privy seal’ while we’re given, in quick succession, shots of Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross, a toilet bowl and a shiny seal balancing a shiny ball on its nose’.  It is this kind of too-literal correspondence that Plan B hopes to avoid.  Instead Muldoon’s poems and Norman McBeath’s black and white images have been allowed to ‘get into conversation with each other’ and to establish their own connections. David Hurn and John Fuller also seek to create something more than an illustrated poetry collection, and Writing the Picture, is presented as a ‘rare collaboration’ in which the poet has responded to the image rather than vice versa.

Plan B suggests that its linking of media – ten poems by Paul Muldoon which weave their way in and out of 28 small, square McBeath photographs – in fact presents a new genre: ‘photoetry’. The significance of the image is rarely evident without scrutiny.  Slowly, correspondences emerge: a length of knotted rope faces the words ‘KGB garotte’ in the title poem; a nautilis shell and some tubes of oil paint counterpoint ‘Francois Boucher: Arion on the Dolphin’; a glamorous, old-fahioned Gossard mannequin poses opposite lines from ‘A Hummingbird’, ‘I’m guessing she’s had a neck-lift and lipo’.  Only once does the Monty Python moment occur, when a reference to ‘Apollo wrapped in polythene’ from ‘Wayside Shrines’, is followed, turning the page, by  –  yes! –  the polythene-wrapped Apollo himself.  More often than not the relationship between poem and photograph is so oblique as to seem abitrary.  Yet paradoxically, this is what makes the partnership less equal than it might first seem – for indirection has been Muldoon’s signature since he sent a hare bounding ‘This way and that, by singleminded swervings’ in ‘I remember Sir Alfred’ from 1980’s Why Brownlee Left.   The poems here similarly swerve around chance and contingencies. The speaker of Plan B has ‘veered// away from the straight/ and narrow of Brooklyn or Baltimore for a Baltic State’, and the seven sections of the poem move back and forward between Vilna and New York, via the figures of Topsy the Coney Island elephant who is publically electrocuted by Thomas Edison, Chazon Ish (‘The wisest Jew alive’), and Edward VII, for whom a ball was thrown in New York in 1860 at which part of the floor collapsed – also taking in the etymology of ‘dork’, and a detour to ‘Cork’, which is misheard for ‘New York’.  ‘Veering’, that is, characterises the poems of Plan B as well as the attention of the reader, swerving from recto to verso, poem to image, discovering correspondence or coincidences.  It’s this that makes Plan B feel like a Muldoon book.  If the set-up runs the risk of the reader overlooking McBeath’s modest, fine-grain photographs  as photographs in haste to locate their relevance, Muldoon’s regular readers might also wonder whether Muldoon’s endlessly associative style has started to close down the opportunities it once, so exhileratingly, opened up.   At any rate, the poems I enjoyed most  here are ‘A Hummingbird’ and ‘A Mayfly’, which stay still long enough for us to feel something.

Writing the Picture, by contrast, is much more a photographer’s book.  Larger, glossier, there are 66 duotone images here, and 50 poems.  The book evolved from a previous assignment for the Independent, in which Fuller agreed to write about Hurn’s photographs, ‘as long as the “captions” could be poetry’.  Such poetic captions, Fuller suggests in the introduction, are quite different from the usual ones, which merely offer a stage of interpretation beyond the title: ‘An accompanying poem supplies a voice which may only be implicit in the photograph… there is a difference between the poetic voice of the observing mind and the poetic voice of the photograph’.  It is this ventriloquism that Fuller has clearly found liberating.  Hurn’s photographs are black and white, more peopled than McBeaths (indeed, they allowed me to see how opaque McBeath’s images are in their own right), full of narrative – and very Welsh.  Fuller’s accompanying poems are open-hearted (even, at times, naïve) in providing voices for black-faced miners, leaping sheep and children playing football against a back drop of factory chimneys.  There are grittier and more complex picture/poems here too.  Brides in full Indian dress smile beneath a kitch oil painting of not just one but three blow-dried Princess Dianas; a heroin addict shoots up on the floor of a public toilet ‘(Don’t look at me, don’t look.  This is a dirty place’ begins Fuller’s companian sonnet).  Less successful, perhaps, are the early pages in which one of Fuller’s poems seems to refer to several specific photos, or at least, this is the only moment when the literal, Monty Python correspondences seem to occur.  My favourite image from Writing the Picture is of a large battered photograph of a suave Dylan Thomas, placed on top of an old fireplace against spectacularly dated wallpaper – a welcome moment of almost Muldoonian self-consciousness.

By coincidence the Hurn/fuller collaboration also features a photograph of not one but two Classical statues wrapped in polythene.  This not only makes me wonder whether this is the kind of thing people photograph a lot, but provides a reminder of something the photographer and poet have eclipsed, by sleight of hand, in stressing the primacy of the photographs.  This is ‘ekphrasis’, the term for the dramatic description of a visual work.  It’s not rare, in fact it derives from the Greek and is thus very, very old.