“…laughing as they glance across the great divide.”

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.

Billy Collins, an erstwhile Poet Laureate who’s hardly known as a formalist, has praised formal poetry as a teaching tool:

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.

9 thoughts on ““…laughing as they glance across the great divide.”

  1. That’s an interesting parallel between the mechanics of Polaroid photography and traditional poetry. Though I love the ease (and near-total lack of expense) of digital photography, in some ways I think digital is too easy. I learned photography on a fully-manual Mamiya 35mm SLR, and so I feel like I’ve earned the skills I’ve developed.

    I co-edit a literary zine, and 95% of the poetry submissions are from writers (I won’t call them poets) who clearly have never studied poetry. What they write might generously be called free verse, but I prefer to call it “prose with line breaks.” It’s as if they want to consider themselves artists, so they take the easy route and express themselves with quasi-poetry. It’s just thoughts spewed out onto a page, with no thought of structure, meter or rhyme, but with just enough line breaks to seem like poetry. They seem a lot like people who snap photos with a digital camera and think they’re photographers. These aspiring poets’ thoughts, emotions, etc. would be much better expressed if they studied and used traditional forms, and the discipline and patience those forms require.

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  2. Hi, Pete! The thing about free verse is that it’s a powerful tool in the hands of someone who’s thought hard about where to put those line breaks and why. Our brains seek patterns, our bodies crave rhythm…we do kids (and other aspiring poets) a disservice by telling them that the most difficult, most abstractly intellectual style of poetry is all there is to poetry, and that it’s at their disposal for emotional release only.

    I’m sure I’m not the first person to conclude that the way we teach (or fail to teach) poetry these days is actually more “elitist” than if we introduced young people to formal tools that used to be monopolized by the educated and the rich. Talk about democratizing!

    Your manual SLR example is a good one; the realization that you have to earn your skills, whatever the activity, can be daunting. Non-photographers like me luck out all the time and get nice snapshots—but until you can explain why a picture turned out well and what you did to make it happen, you’re not really a photographer.

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  3. Your posting and the comments suggest this: neither poets nor photographers (or other artists) ought to move directly into advanced forms without first understanding and mastering the basic forms. Perhaps this is why contemporary “poets” and digital photographers do not understand their roots and would do well to put themselves into “time machines” before attempting to be contemporary. In fact, I remember taking a poetry class in which we wrote sonnets, villanelles, rondeaus, sestinas, blank verse, and other fixed forms before we were permitted to think about writing so-called “free verse.” So, I also think photographers ought to learn the old methods with film and chemicals before going forward into digital forms. But even as I say that, I wonder if one can still buy the film, chemicals, print paper, and equipment for a dark room.

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  4. RT: Indeed you can. My significant other develops her own film using a dark bag (in lieu of a darkroom) to load exposed film into old-fashioned developing canisters. A handy iPad app helps her time the rinse-and-agitation process based on the film brand, and she scans her negatives instead of printing them—but you can still go as manual as you like.

    And yeah, we wouldn’t tell young, untrained athletes to go off to the side and develop freestyle virtuoso moves all by themselves. Maybe in an age of high overall literacy, we devalue finely honed writing skills because most people can write passably well?

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  5. Hi Jeff–

    Enjoyed your musings on the great shaping corset of formal demands! I hadn’t realized that the translations led to the gargoyle poems, but it makes sense. Enjoy your present to yourself!

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  6. Thanks for stopping by, Marly! Yeah, I’ve always had an interest in formal poetry, but after several stints of translating with form in mind (especially some long medieval poems I translated for classroom use when I was teaching), it all just clicked. The Land Camera may take even longer to master; we’ll see…

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  7. Thanks for asking! The old translations were good enough for classroom use, but I’m not sure they were sufficiently smooth or eloquent to warrant publication—but I’m using what they taught me to translate a new round of shorter medieval poems (and one long one I think you’ll enjoy). Stay tuned…

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