EN3246   Literature and the Other Arts: Poetry and Painting

Rajeev S. Patke



Lecture 6  Thom & Ander Gunn,  ** Positives (1966) **



Thom Gunn (1929-2004)

Biographical information: http://www.interviews-with-poets.com/thom-gunn/gunn-note.html

Biographical information: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/109

Biographical information: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/04/25/DDGUFCD4SP1.DTL&type=printable

Collection of comments on Gunn: http://www.arlindo-correia.com/121104.html



Painting & Photography: some similarities 

Painting & Photography: some differences


       Both are systems of representation which depict three dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface.

        The painter is not tied to representationality in a narrowly mimetic way; the imagination, and the various ways of being expressive in a non-representational way, are freely accessible to the painter.

        Painting, for most of its history, invokes, and depends upon, the notion of art, and the criteria of aesthetics that ensue from a notion of art.

        Every painting is unique. In that sense it is elitist or has what Walter Benjamin called the aura of "cult value".



Photography is mediated through the camera, and thus its image-making is based largely on a mechanical device; while painting using chemicals and material objects (brushes, canvas, etc), it is more directly human in its agency.

Photography is dependent entirely on what the camera "sees"; in that sense, it is fairly narrowly mimetic and literal about including in the image everything that is part of the field of vision of the camera lens.

Photography serves several functions, many of which are pragmatic and functional in ways that make the notion of art (or aesthetics) not always central or even necessary for image-making.

Every photograph is, in principle, reproducible. In that sense it democratizes the access of the consumer to the image.     



John Szarkowski (The Photographer's Eye, 1966): "The first thing the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it...

The photographer was tied to the fact of things, and it was his problem to force the facts to tell the truth...

All photographs are time exposures ... and each describes a discrete parcel of time. The time is always the present.. Uniquely in the history of pictures, a photograph describes only that period of time in which it was made."

Excerpts fromThe Photographer's Eye,: http://elmo.academyart.edu/study/ph101/Required%20reading/Szarksowski%20Photog%20Eye.htm

Another source: http://www.photokaboom.com/photography/pdfs/John_Szarkowski.pdf



Key background essay: Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) online text:





 Poem 1

She has been a germ, a fish,
and an animal; even now
she is almost without hair
or sex. But the body
is feeling its way
the minute hands grip, the big
baldish head beams, the feet
press out in the strange element
there is a perception of
warm water, warm, but cooling



Poem 2

The body blunders forward
into the next second, in
its awkward bold half-aware
fashion, and getting there too
— doing things for the first time.
Precarious exploration
from coast to interior:
by which a workable route is
opened, for the later transport
of lathes, heavy crosses and
crates through the undergrowth.
Meanwhile, before the next push,
a triumph, a triumph.



Poem 3

But childhood takes a long time.
Something is feeding on you,
and it is what you feed on.
The source of your strength guts you.
Cars pass by on the street,
and as you feel a loose tooth, in
pleasurable pain, you think
‘there is pleasure in reaching
a painful conclusion
with a tooth or with a thought.’




Poem 4

‘Drink Me’
‘Eat Me’
and you grew or shrank.
Here you have to wait.
    In a bus it is nice to ride on top because
it looks like running people over.




Poem 7

and they start to cross the road,
life swelling in them, but still
contained — aware of their health,
and cherishing their containment
swelling buds
compact segmented buds
bees will come to them
and pollen will encrust
will weigh the treading of
those black hairy legs
till the bees are so heavy
that they seem drunk, uncertain
in heavy flight from the flowers



Poem 9

She rests on and in
the laugh with her whole body, like
an expert swimmer who
lies back in the water
playing relaxed with
her full uncrippled strength
in a sort of hearty surprise
or the laugh is like a prelude:
the ripples go outward
over cool water, losing
force, but continue
to be born at the centre, wrinkling
the water around it




Poem 15

She can't help it, can't
help it. To find it is
evening among the Dodgems,
is luck, an overflowing
like tears, uncontrollable:
arc-lamps through the soft dusk,
boys and girls dawdling
over grass and chocolate wrappers.
Something pulses in her, warm,
rapid, and regular, with a music
she can almost hear
and to this music she dances
the dance of her luck.



 Poem 16

She trembles slightly: her flesh feels
hardly strong enough for the
weight of white lace which seems
to overwhelm her
in her shy smile
choice meets
delight which is fair and fragile
She is giving herself
in trust so complete, so
vulnerable to
the attack of happiness
that you catch your breath
at the risk
              yet waiting
she bears the lace like
her own tender handmaiden
how clear, how soft, and how firm 




Poem 17

 The responsibilities
of marriage follow, of course:
Tesco, Woolworth, and
              you will get home
and I will give you a big
tea on our own table.




 Poem 23

We didn't do up this pub,
though we painted the pipes round
the walls gold, and we put up little
                      but it is
still divided with ornate scrolled
wood, there are still snob-screens
in a twinkling row. There were big
glass mirrors till the protection
boys came and broke them, for a
About her routine, she
moves from smells of hops and malt
to medicinal or fruity smells,
which haunt the polished wood,
each in its place
not like them redecorated pubs
down Chelsea.



 Poem 30

 You have no idea what a
hard life a rich person leads.
What with servants and jewels,
and having to go to Harrods
every day so as to
purchase a big article
and help use up the imports.
It's quite a relief sometimes
to sit down for a while with
an espresso and a tiny slice
of expensive cake.
You have no idea, either,
how hard it is
seeming to lead such a life. 




 Poem 34

It is stone: and if ripples

touch the base of its arches,
he cannot feel them, cannot
feel more than the flat
stone of the bridge, and his bundle.
It is not a symbolic
bridge but a real bridge;
nor is the bundle
a symbol. The wind
is cold, stone
hard, and Salvation Army
tea not sweet enough.





 Poem 35

The mould from baked beans that
even she can't eat edges
onto the damp sticks, netting,
bones, leaves, slabs
of rust, felt, feathers,
all disintegrating to
an infected compost.
The infection in it is slow,
slight, deep, and it has certain needs,
for see, it responds to warmth.
Outside the abandoned house
where she slept on old papers
she stirs in the sun.





Poem 36

Poking around the rubbish,
she can't find what she wants.
Near Maidstone once, hop-picking
with the four babies and Tom, she
worked all day along the green alleys,
among the bins,
in the dim leafy light of
the overhanging vines.
In the village, shopkeepers
put cages on their counters
to prevent snatching. But Tom
took something ! What was it?
All in the rubbish heap now,
some rotting, most clean vanished.





Poem 37

Something approaches, about
which she has heard a good deal.
Her deaf ears have caught it, like a
silence in the wainscot
by her head. Her flesh has felt
a chill in her feet, a draught
in her groin. She has watched it
like moonlight on the frayed wood
stealing toward her
floorboard by floorboard. Will it hurt?
Let it come, it is
the terror of full repose,
and so no terror. 




Review Questions 


1.     Comment on the choice of a monochrome format by Ander Gunn for all the photographs in Postitives.

2.     How would you describe the textures of the images in Postitives? What would you regard as their significance to the overall impact or the images?

3.     Do Thom Gunn's poems and Ander Gunn's photographs give any clues as to whether the image came first or the poem in any given pair? Does that matter to how we react to either?

4.     Distinguish between sentiment-sentimentality, or pathos-emotion in any given pair of image and poem.

5.     Do the poem-image pairs add up to a sense that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?

6.     What is the social context implied by each image? How does the poem develop that?

7.     How do these pairs illustrate the idea that an image is "dumb", while a poem "speaks"? Is there an interpretive surplus that each poem provides for its corresponding image?

8.     In what sense can poems and images be said to be telling the "truth" about something to do with the individuals represented in Positives?

9.     To what degree can the subjects of the book be regarded as symbolic, or representative?

10.    What do you learn about the relation between image and language from Positives?





Last Updated 8 March 2012