Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is a personal meditation on the nature of photography. In the first half of the book, he uses photographs from well-known photographers as case studies on how the meaning or “worth” of a photograph can differ from person to person. The second half untangles his response to a photograph of his mother as a child. Though he describes and considers the photograph in detail, notably the way in which it has shaped his understanding of photography, he writes: “I cannot reproduce [the photograph]. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of a thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.”
The ‘wound’ he refers to is a photograph’s punctum: a detail “which attracts or distresses [the viewer]”. Since reading Barthes’ book, I’ve been pondering the possible application of studium and punctum to the reading of poetry. There can be details in a poem that stand out to us as mere documentary or social intrigue – and then there are the details, lines and images that wound us and draw us in far deeper than we are sometimes willing to go. As readers we will be drawn to different aspects of a poem, but what I love about poetry – much like photography and most other art – is how it can meld historical facts and context with personal viewpoints and unexpected imagery.
I was particularly interested in Barthes’ assumption that his reader would be “indifferent” to this photograph, and as such chose to withhold it from us, claiming some sort of “ownership”. At first, I thought this was disingenuous of Barthes. This means we cannot make a call ourselves and determine whether his assertion is objectively true. He has told us but not shown us, and I felt slighted by his withholding of an integral part of his examination of photography.
This got me thinking about whether or not anyone can determine who a poem might be “for”. When we write a poem, do we cast our poems into the world knowing (hoping) that they will find their way to a very specific reader that we had in mind when we wrote them? I’ve written many poems about my family; in some ways they are also “for” my family – a record, an acknowledgement, a bridge. Despite that, my mum has said that she doesn’t understand some of these poems, even though they’re based on stories she told me about her childhood and she and her siblings appear in them! I’m surprised when people share their (sometimes intimate) responses to these poems. They’re often not the type of reader I imagine reading my poems, so it pleases me that such personal, reflective poems can move others.
On the flipside, I also wonder what sort of poetry is out there “for” me. I enjoy reading a broad range of poets, but I’d be reticent to say I’m the sort of reader these poets were hoping to attract. I like to picture poems and readers as particles floating out in the ether, waiting for a slight nudge or stroke of chance to bring them together. Nothing is ever made for everyone, though reading the vitriolic comments hurled at writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists etc on the internet would have you believing otherwise.
©Chris Tse 2017
Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which was named Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His poetry and non-fiction have recently appeared in Mimicry, The Atlanta Review and The Pantograph Punch.