Combinations in tandem – photopoems by Oneida Cramer

Strong relations between pictures and poetry are nothing new in literary and art history. It is difficult to find a self-respecting poet who had not written once a poem inspired by a painting: preferably a very famous one, by an Italian, Flemish or Dutch master. There are thousands of poets with ca 50 000 poems identified by Gisbert Kranz in his 3-vol. study and anthology Das Bildgedicht (1981-1989) – the numbers must be much bigger by now.

In this type of poetry the painting is earlier, its literary echo comes later and always from another author, not the painter. So it is a meeting of two artists not resulting in a real conversation but giving a literary response to the visual composition. In most cases the poem is re-telling the narrative motifs and is reading the messages encoded in the visual artwork.

Quite different was the emblem poetry where the visual and literary concept were developed together for a given project, sometimes by the same artist. Here both codes belong closely together, one message is incomplete without the other. The drawing is mostly an illustration for the motifs told in the literary part of the emblem. If anywhere, it is here we get a real conversation. between two different artists, or even two artistic workshops and esthetic attitudes within one artist.

With the invention of photography two things happened, dividing the art according to different technologies: analog printed photos by professional photographers started to be used as earlier paintings were used for poets’ inspiration. The digital photography brought quite a new quality. Displaying the photo on screen allows for a better insight in the details of the picture, which can be studied more thoroughly. So it can have a better impact on the author who may feel the call to continue the editing of the picture by adding something more than a caption. If we remember that giving a caption to the picture was the privilege and obligation of any painter and photographer anyway, we realize that both the bildgedicht and the photo-poem have their origin in the naming gesture of the visual artist. Poets follow them more or less cunningly.

So this is where we are looking at the book of Oneida Morningstar Cramer (click for examples): a professional photographer who wanted to go beyond a simple naming of her photographs developing them into poems. Once or twice we can recognize this pattern in one-line texts that could do as captions, e.g. in: An Enigma in Orange, Ocean canyon ambush, or Stage Backdrop Drama – the latter’s spreading the words over the space transforms it into a playground for the eye of the beholder, forced to move through the furnished living room.

Contrary to the practice of the arts, where the caption stays off the picture, and only the signature of the painter is put on the irrelevant piece of the presented world (not on the main figure’s forehead), Cramer’s poems step fully on the photos, filling their „less important” areas void of details. In some cases the Author breaks the routine of keeping the picture’s borders as the work’s delineation, and the texts exceed the picture’s dimensions, staying outside of it or being given an additional empty black frame as writing space.

The common solution however merges the texts with images, to guarantee the unity of the photopoem at the cost of the independence of both contributing components – or ingredients, to follow Cramer’s culinary metaphor for photo-poem: „a work as a whole, where taste and aroma become the drink”.  The in-tandem metaphor is also valid, because both esthetic players  – word and image – are an inseparable pair. The internal unity of Cramer’s photo-poems follows from the minimal (almost no) distance between looking and reading: the cognitive loop can be most effective thanks to minimalizing the time lapse between the moments of understanding the picture and the text, and keeping them constantly in the same focus of attention. It is indeed a drink whose taste we can feel at the same time as we feel its smell.

The accompanying poems differ in their character no less than the images. The ways of topicalization cover the many possibilities between simple paraphrasing of a visual motif, and its more abstract treatment: epigrammatic (e.g. My admiration…, When techno meets techno…, Ode to a dying elm), philosophical (e.g. Antique the pages…, Watching goldfish…, Sun and rose), and a general lyrical reflecting (e.g. Down my alley, In poetic vision, Winter dress). Most from numerous flower or nature poems represent the simple first type (On a peach rose petal…, White waves…,  and many more). There is one perfect Dinggedicht on the tuning fork (The art of precision…) whose photo, however, perfect as it is, does not participate in the poem’s content in the way of visual poetry.

In the choice of presented objects there is no program, they vary from a landscape panorama to the smallest detail revealed by macro-photography. The first two poems already show this frame, which is kept more or less consequently through the whole volume, with its many panoramic shots, scenes with acting people, separated by close-ups of leaves, petals, drops and insects.

A collection of outlooks with meanings, meanings of outlooks.

A. Dabrowka
23 July 2015

Oneida Morningstar Cramer, Idealism is an attractive flower,
Eudora Publishing Company, Dallas 2014.


Informacje o Andrzej Dąbrówka

Tenured professor, Institute of Literary Research (Polish Academy of Sciences), Warsaw.
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