ESSAY Michael Nott

NWR Issue r2

Slender Underpinnings, Welsh photopoetry and the collaborative imagination

Boiling seas at Porth Ysgaden, Llŷn Peninsula, by Mari Owen

See also Ashley Wakefield's review of a collection of photopoetry inspired by the Conwy Valley, The Slate Sea (eds Paul Henry & Zed Nelson), also published in Review 2, New Welsh Review's second online supplement, August 2015.

‘There is a theory,’ writes poet John Fuller,

that a successful collaboration essentially creates a third creative personality. In some ways a poem is a fulfilment of one aspect of the photograph that the poet has chosen to explore. It becomes a completion of one of the functions of that photograph. But of course there could be an infinity of those functions, and an infinity of poems. The one that gets written is the poet’s chosen feelings about the picture.

Fuller’s collaboration, Writing the Picture (Seren, 2010), with Magnum photographer David Hurn, is one of the most engaging photopoetry collections in recent years, and testifies to the idea that poem and photograph have a more symbiotic relationship with one another as photopoem rather than the kind of static, illustrative relationship common to, for example, photograph and caption. As this essay will discuss, Fuller’s idea of one isolated ‘aspect’ highlights the collapse of the traditional relationship between poem and photograph, in which text was thought to illustrate image in its entirety, a collapse prompted by the growth of collaboration.

Collaboration, however, has not always been the dominant mode of exploring the relationship between poem and photograph, and the practice did not become common until the mid-twentieth century. A brief history of photopoetry begins with mid-nineteenth-century anthologies, such as William Morris Grundy’s Sunshine in the Country (Richard Griffin, 1861), descending from domestic scrapbooks and commonplace albums in which reader acted as compiler, assembling pertinent snippets of text and image. Grundy, a stereographer from Sutton Coldfield, edited Sunshine, and paired his images with extracts from poems by Alexander Pope, Samuel Rogers, and Thomas Wharton, among others. Other practices included that of commercial photographers who visited landscapes associated with famous deceased, poets, such as Wordsworth and Scott. Their photographs would illustrate expensively bound editions of the poems, such as Our English Lakes, Mountains, and Waterfalls, as Seen by William Wordsworth (AW Bennett, 1864). Photographically illustrated editions of Scott’s poetry were tremendously popular, and successful commercial photographers such as Thomas Ogle, Russell Sedgefield, and George Washington Wilson illustrated six of his longer poems, including The Lady of the Lake (AW Bennett, 1863) and Marmion (AW Bennett, 1866). One of the most notable early photographically illustrated poetry books was Julia Margaret Cameron’s edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (Henry S King, 1875). This interaction between photographer and poet sparked the more collaborative works of the following century, a body of photopoetry culminating in Ted Hughes’ work with Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet (Faber, 1979) and Elmet (Faber, 1994), and Seamus Heaney’s collaboration with Rachel Giese, Sweeney’s Flight (Faber, 1992).

At the centre of virtually all these books is the representation of landscape, a concern shaping photopoetry from its beginnings. In most recent decades, the idea of journeying through, for example, the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands, with poet and photographer acting as guide, has been transformed into more of a psychological journey, where ideas of remembrance inform the reader’s perception of the places represented in photopoetry. This idea structures two of the most important recent collections, both of which exhibit a Welsh connection: Hurn and Fuller’s Writing the Picture, and Philip Gross and Simon Denison’s I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon, 2009), recipient of Wales Book of the Year 2010.

Although Hurn and Fuller display, at times, a tonal lightness uncommon to photopoetry – the photograph of the sheep in the ‘lift’ is a particular highlight – the collection’s most rewarding photopoems are those focussing on the darker, political aspects of Welsh culture. The photopoem beginning ‘Brethren, we are gathered here/ In memory of our lost valleys’ alludes to the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley in 1965 in order to create a new reservoir providing water to Liverpool. Hurn’s photograph depicts an open-air service at Nantgwyllt, and the voice Fuller lends to the image acts as a defiant eulogy to the drowned Welsh-language community of Capel Celyn:

For there is but one true church,
Infinitely open to the presence
Of the single reason of our existence.

Fuller continues the architectural metaphor, suggesting that nature’s church ‘admits light from any angle’, whose ‘one vast window is without glass’, highlighting both the continuation of community in adversity and the loss of the buildings that formed the village. Fuller is attuned to the political resonances of the loss of dwelling and of language, and draws the two together in an image of rain ‘[g]ossiping along the village’. The poem attests to the continuing hostility towards the fact of the reservoir’s construction, and, in its forthright conclusion, enacts a similar, memorial function to the graffiti inscription adorning a nearby wall, which reads ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn) and has been repainted continually since the flooding.

Let the rain cease and the lakes run dry!
To the eager rivers call a halt!
Should Liverpool thirst, it is not our fault.

[PAGE 2]

Hurn and Fuller’s photopoem touches on many ideas informing the reevaluation of landscape in twenty-first century photopoetry, including a growing concern with architecture and technology, an examination of what it means to dwell in the world, and the relationship of both poetry and photography to memory and the act of memorial. An earlier exploration of these themes can be found in George Mackay Brown and Gunnie Moberg’s collaboration, Orkney, Pictures and Poems (Colin Baxter, 1996), a meditation on the landscape of Orkney and its rural communities.

Gross and Denison’s I Spy Pinhole Eye manoeuvres the meditation on nature and technology in a different, wholly original and idiosyncratic direction. Denison’s images of the footings of electricity pylons taken with a pinhole camera complement Gross’ sequence of poems, all of which allude to the sonnet form, so that the overall impute of the collaboration is a reflection on what it means to see and interpret. Taken one after the other the photographs are hypnotic, almost hallucinatory, and present us, as George Szirtes writes in his foreword, ‘with feelings of mystery, loss, distance, alienation, and a kind of awe composed of all of these.’ Each footing, as the poem ‘First Footing’ notes, is ‘a clod of concrete / planted like a colonist’s first step / ashore.’ This suggestion of a long, arduous journey is perhaps an ironic comment on nineteenth-century photographically illustrated poetry, with its appeal to the armchair traveller whose Lakes and Highlands would have been unadorned with these structures.

Indeed, the pylons walk ‘through the eye / of a pinhole’ and act as prompts for Gross’ discursive responses, though the poet does on occasion take the pylon footings for his direct subject: ‘Constitutional’, for example, discusses the parliament of birds who ‘perch in session’ on the pylons, ‘in their various robes of birdhood // handing fertiliser down’, an image which alludes to the assimilation of these structures into the landscape, as good as trees for the perching birds. Likewise in ‘Believing’, the photograph shows how the earth seems to have subsumed the pylon, the foot of which seems to grow naturally out of the grass. This acts as a metaphor for Gross’ thoughts on the potential wonder of ordinary things:

That seeing and believing
are a structure, cross-struts of each other…
How such slender underpinnings

can support a span….

One of the most important features of this collaboration, however, is the attention directed towards the materiality of the photographic image, something often overlooked in modern photobooks compared with scrapbooks and photo albums, and the early days of photographically illustrated books, in which original prints were laboriously ‘tipped in’. Most obviously this is highlighted in the nature of Denison’s pinhole images, and Gross’ poems also make repeated references to ‘the silent picture palace’ of the photographic plate, making it an architectural space primed for the writing – or building – of light. I Spy is an important and progressive photopoetic work, and renegotiates the nature of the relationship between the two forms.
[PAGE 3]

Llanpumsaint churchyard, by Paul White

The previous two years have seen more intriguing and stimulating photopoetry emerging from Wales, the highlight of which is the unsettling collection, Beddau’r Beirdd/Poet’s Graves (Gomer, 2014) with photographs by Paul White, and English and Welsh ‘texts’ by Damian Walford Davies and Mererid Hopwood respectively. Drawing on the Welsh strict metre ‘Englynion y Beddau’ (The Stanzas of the Graves), ‘a collection of briefly plotted but hauntingly evoked grave coordinates’ dating from the ninth or tenth century, the collection writes and images the graves of seventy-one poets – including Dylan Thomas, RS Thomas and Saunders Lewis – and focuses on a hitherto unrecorded aspect of landscape photopoetry. As Davies writes in the volume’s introduction, the ‘memorialising verses’ of ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’ ‘are also acts of landscape interpretation’, a concern that has influenced the book. Davies continues,

Our own stanzas of the graves – located in deliberately unfixed space between prose and verse, sepulchrally quadrilateral on the page – are meditations on the problem of writing the poet’s grave….

Garth Hill, Pentyrch, Cardiff, featuring poet John Tripp, by Paul White

The texts do indeed read as prose-poems, not unlike the kind of ‘illuminating fragments’ Helen Groth has identified as central to the nostalgic aesthetic of photographically illustrated poetry anthologies in the nineteenth century. However, the spatial poetics of the text/image dynamic here elevate these endeavours above the level of illustration, and there are some remarkable pairings throughout the collection, such as the epitaph for John Tripp (1927-1986):

From this office block, Newport Road six lanes of
prose below, I see the summit where they set
your cinders free. At last, the black dog’s off your
back. From that elevation, you can watch the
Severn flare, the Cardiff train break cover from
the borderclouds, windows kindling to a
sunflash. Your bed of bracken’s taking fire into

White’s photograph (pictured) depicts the ‘elevation’, looking down towards Cardiff, though the eye is drawn to a hazy, almost silhouetted figure centre-right, his back to the camera, seeming to swig from a bottle as he wanders into the distance, perhaps an evocation of Tripp himself. The photopoem is significant, though, in that it is a different attempt to evoke both person and place: Tripp was not buried but had his ashes scattered. As such, this is a ‘portrait’ of a different nature to those of the headstones, recalling the landscapes of earlier photopoetry, a pertinent example of what Davies calls the writer and reader’s ‘personae as literary tourists, conscious of the tension between pilgrimage and recreation.’

Just as Beddau’r Beirdd/Poet’s Graves memorialises these poets and, by extension, Wales’ poetic history, the collection Datguddiad/Revealment (Self published, 2013), pairing photographs of sculptures by Alison Lochhead with poems by Dai Jenkins, has come to act as a monument to Jenkins, who died in 2012 before the book was complete. Lochhead’s sculptures, made of clay, iron, and wood, evoke the forgotten histories of the land. Jenkins’ poems, sometimes humorous (‘Lowry’), sometimes disquieting (‘The Cwm at Night’) also speak to those submerged histories, and together they serve to remind the reader of the noble purpose of political awareness and action that can inform art across media.
[PAGE 4]

The View from Sarn Helen, Upper Neath Valley, by Carl Ryan

Another central image in photopoetic history is that of the river, the focus of Alcemi Dŵr/Alchemy of Water (Gomer, 2013), a collection combining the landscape photography of Mari Owen and Carl Ryan with the English and Welsh poems of Tony Curtis and Grahame Davies respectively. The river has a rich photopoetic history, from John Alleyne Macnab’s Song of the Passaic (Walbridge & Co, 1890) to Ted Hughes and Peter Keen’s River (Faber, 1983). Alchemy is notable for its use of colour photography, a rare feature of photopoetry, as the sombre quality of monochrome is used to evoke photopoetry’s general solemnity. The poems are concise – the longest, in the English verse, is seven lines – and Curtis notes in his introduction the influences of ‘the englyn, folk verse, haiku and imagist poem.’ A view north at Sarn Helen, Upper Neath Valley and the river Senni, by Carl Ryan (pictured), prompts the response:

This is the alchemy of water:
from the floating forms of low cloud, mist,
are beaten these pendants of silver.

The alchemy, of course, works on a formal level, a metaphor for the dialogue between poem and photograph. There is a third element, however, that lends the collection an additional ekphrastic twist: many of the photographs replicate the locations of paintings by the artist Fred Jones, whose several journeys back to Wales between 2003-2006 led to an exhibition of watercolours at the National Library of Wales in 2006.

One of the most significant recent photopoetry collections outside Wales is I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) with translations from the Pashto by Eliza Griswold and photographs by Seamus Murphy. Sung anonymously by Afghan women, the landay, a folk couplet consisting of twenty-two syllables, is ‘distinctive,’ Griswold suggests in her introduction,

not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for its piercing ability to articulate a common truth about love, grief, separation, homeland, and war.

Griswold also includes brief prose passages to elucidate further the cultural and historical complexities informing her translations, and Murphy’s photographs are haunting in their often associative rather than illustrative connections to the translations. Again, the concise poems lend themselves to particularly poignant expressions of dark humour, fear, and uncertainty: ‘Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees. / I can find no cure for their sting.’

Most of the portraits in the collection show male rather than female faces, and this concealment highlights how the poems direct attention towards the inner lives of the women. The most detailed approach to a community in this manner in recent photopoetry is Kathleen Jamie and Sean Mayne Smith’s The Autonomous Region (Bloodaxe, 1993), which details their journey to Tibet in the late 1980s and the lives of the nomadic monks whom they encounter. Both books form an important expression of the potential political dimensions of photopoetry, and I Am the Beggar in particular lends a necessary voice to Afghan women who, in the past decade, have achieved ‘a hard won autonomy’ now under threat again, as Griswold notes, as the American occupation ends.

In the case of each collection I have discussed, the nuances of collaborative practice have engendered a great variety of approaches to the relationship between poem and photograph. Each of these develops the original illustrative position of photopoetry, and advancements in the symbiosis of text and image elevate the type of book that has, for a long time, been considered of no greater artistic or literary value than a ‘coffee-table’ luxury. Photopoetry has a long and complex history, one ridged with both with failures and innovations. It is the development of a critical discourse surrounding the genre – a discourse even more important to critics, perhaps, than to practitioners – that will enable important scholarship to be achieved in relation to its history, broadening the discussion to include neglected collections of importance to both poetic and photographic history. The engaging and variegated approaches to poetry and photography in Wales are certainly encouraging for the development of photopoetry in the twenty-first century.

Michael Nott has submitted his PhD thesis at the University of St Andrews on the relationship between poetry and photography and the history of this form, from the photographically illustrated poetry anthologies of the nineteenth century to collaborations between poets and photographers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The title of his thesis is 'Photopoetry: A Critical History', and its broad scope incorporates the work of poets as diverse as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Thom Gunn, and Adela Nicolson, and distinguished photographers including Rudy Burckhardt, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Fay Godwin.

Photographs cited:
David Hurn and John Fuller, Writing the Picture (Seren, 2010), David Hurn, ‘Nantgwilt. Open air service,’ p63.
Philip Gross and Simon Denison, I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon, 2009), Simon Denison, ‘Believing,’ p60 (title of adjacent poem).
Damian Walford Davies, Mererid Hopwood, Paul White, Beddau’r Beird/Poet’s Graves (Gomer, 2014), Paul White, ‘Garth Hill, Pentyrch, Cardiff,’ featuring poet John Tripp, p97; Paul White, ‘Llanpumpsaint churchyard,’ p85 (both pictured).
Tony Curtis, Grahame Davies, Mari Owen, Carl Ryan, Alcemi Dŵr/Alchemy of Water (Gomer, 2013), Carl Ryan , ‘View north at Sarn Helen, Upper Neath Valley,’ p80 (pictured); Mari Owen, ‘Boiling seas pound the cliffs at Porth Ysgaden, Llŷn Peninsula,’ p58 (pictured).
Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), Seamus Murphy, ‘Your eyes aren’t eyes,’ p24.

Permissions with warm thanks: Carl Ryan, Mari Owen, Paul White & Gwasg Gomer


previous essay: Blurred Boundaries
next essay: The Dent on Private Murphy’s Forehead


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