When the windows glaze over with ice and snow and every spare word goes straight into projects that pay, this blog gets quiet—but in recent days, I’ve been thawing out drafts of old work while testing the view through my latest willfully outmoded lens.
Behold: a Polaroid Land Camera 230. After toying with someone else’s before Christmas, I found this one at an antique shop in Savannah and decided to make it my own. Fuji still makes film for it, but if you’re fond of the total control that digital photography gives you, then you won’t enjoy lugging this clunker around.
The Land Camera, you see, needs warm temperatures, its light and aperture settings are limited, it doesn’t zoom, it spits out chemical-drenched litter, the photos take hours to dry, and you need to time the development down to the second—and that’s after you clean the rollers, modernize the battery chamber, scrub away corrosion, and master the art of yanking the paper tabs without stranding the photos inside. “And besides,” a neighbor chided me, “the pictures from those things were never really great.”
True, the photos I’ve taken so far are not impressive, but the first round of peel-and-reveal was a thrill, and there’s plenty of online evidence that under good conditions, with the right light and a fitting subject, even a 50-year-old camera can work the occasional wonder. You just have to accept its many constraints and embrace their necessity. I’m ready; it’s a lesson that poetry already offers.
“I really did struggle writing dreadful free verse for a long time,” poet and classicist A.E. Stallings told an interviewer a few years back. Stallings began publishing her work only after she saw possibilities in traditional forms, having discovered the value (and fun) of using old tools to your advantage:
Form opens up all kinds of possibilities. Rhyme often leads you to write things that surprise you. A meter may help you tap into a forgotten emotion. With form, certain decisions have already been, arbitrarily, made for you—a certain number of lines, a designated meter with a particular pattern of rhymes. That frees you up to think about other, more interesting choices in the poem.
I started to appreciate the bravura aspect of still-life painting, where you have a chandelier reflected in a mirror. You start to see that Vermeer is essentially bragging. So I try to encourage students to look at the challenge of formal poetry, to see, for example, that the fewer the end rhyme sounds the more difficult the poem is. Frost has a poem called “The Rose Family,” I think it’s twelve or fourteen lines, it has just one rhyme: rose, goes, suppose, knows. He’s bragging: I can write a fourteen-line poem with A-A-A-A-A-A. Can you?
Others have noted that art often springs from a challenge. Recalling a classroom exercise in sonnet-writing, religion professor Debra Dean Murphy saw form give rise to unforeseen complexity:
In the end, writing a sonnet wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly freeing. The constraints of the form were not, after all, limitations to creativity but their necessary precondition. Once the boundaries were acknowledged not as confinements but as “inducements to elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning” . . . it was possible even to strive for and discover beauty: in choosing this word and not that one, in making the rhyme scheme work, in finding a fitting image or metaphor.
Of course, a Land Camera isn’t so adaptable; it’s a machine cleverly devised to meet certain needs within the limitations of its time. In that sense, it’s more like a poem than a form—an archaic sonnet whose vocative O!s and hammy Ah!s threaten to obscure its virtuosity.
Like A.E. Stallings, I once filled pages with dreadful free verse—until I translated 75 difficult 13-line rhyming, alliterative Middle Scots stanzas into modern English and chased that project with 53 gargoyle poems in dozens of forms, from Japanese tanka to the Old Norse dróttkvaett. Poetry need not (and generally does not) have practical value, but writing in difficult forms teaches lesssons—discipline, patience, honing your tools, acquiring terms of art—that carry over to other parts of your life.
Technology turns obsolete in ways that poetic forms can’t, but learning to make the most of this Land Camera feels like that first foray into form. Flip up the viewfinder, extend the bellows, set the shutter, slide the focus bar back and forth—and celebrate if even one shot in a stack of wan images surprises you with something more.