“Most artists make art precisely because they feel some sort of absence or incoherence in their lives. It seems not simply inevitable but necessary that the art they produce in some way seek to contain or heal whatever is missing or wounded or wrongful in them,” writes Christian Wiman in an essay called “An Idea of Order.” Wiman explores often and beautifully this absence and containment in relation to form in poetry, but this particular essay has been on my mind lately because of Wiman’s focus on familiar or classic forms – the sonnet, for example – and my enduring interest in the standard pop song.
The immediate spark for this was the reissue of the Sleater-Kinney catalogue. I’d had their music on cassettes made by friends back in the day and for whatever reason never updated the band to digital. So I picked up Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out just for starters and that old sledgehammer rush was still there entirely and wonderfully intact. Yet I come here not to sing the praises of Sleater-Kinney (although that is a pleasant thing to do) but rather of the way they – and so many others – used the pop structure to heal the missing or wounded in them, and in me.
There’s a feeling, according to Wiman, that because “Our experience is fragmented and partial, therefore the forms with which we apprehend that experience must be similarly fragmented and partial.” But he then points out that “Yvor Winters termed this the ‘fallacy of imitative form,’” and says: “I believe that it’s sometimes precisely in those works that exhibit the greatest degree of formal coherence, the greatest sense of closure, that a reader may experience, and thereby more likely endure, the most intense anxiety and uncertainty.”
Using Robert Frost’s “The Most of It”1 as an illustration:
[Frost] can’t quite see the world in relation to himself, can’t avoid his suspicion that the world and the terms with which he apprehends it have nothing to do with each other. [“The Most of It”] is at once an assertion of connection with the world and a recognition of existential isolation. It straddles these two possibilities, and it does so formally . . . Stylistic roughness or overt formal distortion would have the paradoxical effect of diminishing the uncertainty and anxiety in this poem. It would seem as if life had definitively answered . . . It aims in art at a calm and coherence that its writer lacked in life.
So back to the traditional pop song. Verse chorus verse chorus bridge verse chorus. That’s the deal, forever and ever, amen.2 In response to anyone who has ever doubted its power, I present Nirvana as Exhibit A. Kurt Cobain could sing the most hurtful and hurting things, and he and Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic could play as loud and fast as whatever, but they used the Paul McCartney playbook all the way, and all to the resounding good of Nirvana’s music. I would argue that Nirvana successfully peddled “objectionable” emotions where other equally worthy bands failed because their songs’ pop structure – their “classic” form – gave listeners a way to access music that might have been otherwise too abrasively difficult.3
Which may make it sound like Nirvana made a calculated move to appeal commercially to record buyers, but I think that’s not at all the case. And it doesn’t matter all that much because the band is not remembered primarily because of the breadth of its appeal, but because of its depth. That’s because Cobain found a way to say some very painful things in a way that communicated to the careful listener that, despite the truth of the lyrics, life is not entirely pain. That we may indeed glimpse something else. I also like to think that he probably really fucking loved The Beatles.
And to riff a bit – this is what makes Cobain’s early death such a sadness: that he seemingly never got the chance to resolve these things in his own life. And also that the standard obituary is that he was angst-ridden (because it’s easy to read that on a lyric sheet), which for sure is true, but what you never hear is that he worked formally to somehow ease that angst, or at least to imply that was possible. For chrissakes, he wrote a song called “Verse Chorus Verse.”4
But that’s too much (and also far too little) about Nirvana. There are so many musicians who have done similar things for me. Sleater-Kinney, as I mentioned. To fully experience the great Bob Mould in concert, whether in Hüsker Dü or Sugar, or as a solo artist, I have risked both permanent heartbreak and hearing damage on multiple occasions. The pop song is the spoonfull of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Consider Green Day’s masterful album American Idiot, an indictment of post-Bush America that sounds perfectly and subversively radio-friendly. Or Wilco’s Summerteeth, which fuses a Beatles/Beach Boys appeal to lyrics that can be downright discomfiting.5
There are effects available to traditionally formal poems that aren’t available to other forms, and one of these effects has to do with an intensification of the uncertainty and even open-endedness that we normally associate with looser forms. “To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow,” Marilynne Robinson has written: “and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?” [Such poems] shadow an order that they suggest does not exist. Their forms make us feel physically this lack, at once easing and intensifying our perception of the disorder that is the reason for this lack.
“To crave and to have . . . to know anything so utterly as when we lack it.” Can you think of a better description of the work of Liz Phair, who says shit to make even me blush, but always with a perfect aching control of pop form? And reader, may I suggest that this is the first (and most likely the last) time that you will see these two geniuses, Ms. Robinson and Ms. Phair, considered together in print?
But so all of this got me thinking about form in both photographs (individually) and especially photobooks. And when I thought about it this way, it affirmed my agreement with Wiman’s thesis and reaffirmed my belief in the pop song. I’d like to punt on form in individual photographs, and save that topic for a later day. But I have some initial thoughts on the photobook form, the tires of which I’d like to kick.
There was a time when I heard that the “white page – photograph – white page – photograph – maybe an occasional double spread – white page – photograph” thing in photobooks was dead. Or at least to be assiduously avoided. Which, sure, it’s good to challenge long-held assumptions and look for new ways to do things. Someone somewhere had to be the first person to write a sonnet.
But y’know, on the other hand, maybe American Photographs and The Americans – considered as books – worked and continue to work for a reason. And perhaps that reason is instructive and relevant to people working today. We might say that these “white page – picture” books are a decent analogue to the sonnet form in poetry.
I like a lot of photobooks for different reasons. A lot. But I have come to realize that that vast majority of the books that I enjoy the most, that I return to frequently and that have changed my perception of the world, are the formally “traditional” books – the sonnets, if you will. I could easily write about such books by Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, Susan Lipper, Andrea Modica, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and a bunch of others, but I’ll mention a couple by John Gossage and Michael Schmidt as exemplary.
The Pond and 89/90 are, I think, fundamentally really disconcerting books. While I would call many of their photographs beautiful, none of them are particularly consoling. But, importantly, neither work is “about” its individual pictures; both are fundamentally books. And both are fundamentally traditional as books. Gossage prints straightforwardly and uses a gatefold (at the beginning; go figure) and just a couple double-page spreads; Schmidt prints dark and reuses and flips a photograph, but otherwise there are no real formal tricks. (In fact, one must be quite attentive to these tactics for them to even register.) And this seems important to me: the photographs in both books have white borders. Nothing is printed full-bleed.
When I say that the books are disconcerting, I don’t even think it’s important why, exactly. The Pond could legitimately be read as environmentally concerned in a third-person sort of way, but for me it’s a first-person journey through an (un)remarkable landscape, and its sad despoilment is important, but not its main point. As for 89/90, I simply don’t know enough of pre- and post-Communist Berlin to understand it on a literal level. Even still, I can project overwhelming feelings of claustrophobia and even paranoia.
Whatever your specific reading, I would argue that the images are, on their own, bleak. But the books are not bleak, because the formal control of the sequencing and book design balances the tone of the photographs. I could say about The Pond and 89/90 what Wiman says about certain formally traditional poems:
I experience a certain kind of closure and formal coherence . . . as both fulfillment and deprivation, presence and absence . . . I’m trying to describe an effect in form, one arising from a belief or need that has outlived or lost its object, a formal coherence whose reach exceeds its grasp . . . Its strength inheres in the balance it maintains between a consciousness of its limitations and the assertion of formal order it makes in the face of them.
It may sound strange, but I think that the Gossage and Schmidt books, along with others by these men and the best ostensibly “bleak” yet traditionally formal books by many others, do offer some consolation. They are, in Wiman’s phrase, “perfectly poised between the sense of wrongness out of which they emerged and the half-glimpsed wholeness and rightness they in their formal accomplishment afford.” This is probably another essay altogether, but to provide a counter-example, this could be why I struggle with Japanese photobooks: to perhaps dangerously generalize, many of these books use design (lots of full-bleed and images run through the gutter) and dark, grainy printing to reinforce the chaotic subject matter of the photographs. I can understand that these aesthetic decisions reflect the unfathomable feelings of a people after the horrors of World War II and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet as books, for me they offer no toehold to see something else beyond the bleakness, which glimpse might paradoxically twist the knife even more brutally.
I probably need to pay Christian Wiman a royalty for how much I’ve quoted from him in this essay, but what the hell I’m going to end with this, in which he makes the point better than I. (And it’s got more Marilynne Robinson, as a bonus.)
A poem may foreshadow formally a time in which one’s world and mind will – and I’m paraphrasing Marilynne Robinson here – be made whole. To reach for is not to grasp . . . To experience such forms is to experience both consolation and provocation . . . It is to be given an image of life that you have lost or long dreamed of, to hear as sound something of the farthest sorrows that you are, and to know in that moment that what you’ve been given is not enough.
1. He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.
2. With some wiggle room, of course. Also amen.
3. To expand upon this point a bit, using my limited personal experience playing the guitar: I don’t/can’t write music, but I have memorized perhaps a couple hundred songs to cover, and I know that’s because of the pop form, not because of any musical intelligence on my part. There’s some cosmic logic to the pop structure that makes it practically impossible to forget a song once you’ve cracked its basic code. On the other hand, forgetting the lyrics is pretty damned easy.
4. In a prickly funny Cobain move, he switched the title of this song with one previously called “Sappy” for inclusion on an AIDS-benefit compilation album. The form can indeed lead to sap in the wrong hands.
5. Anyway, pick your poison, right? Please use the comments section liberally to shout-out the artists who fit this bill.