An Oral Compulsion: The Image

25 09 2009

The following is a copy of the talk I’ve been compelled into delivering for one of my  coursework subjects this semester.

Hello everyone.

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

 I’m from the English, Media and Performing Arts school of UNSW and I’m going to talk to you very quickly about what is the central notion of my Masters Thesis.  We’ll look at two ideas that I’ll be considering further in the full thesis project, and we’ll also have a look at some examples that illustrate these concepts.

 The thesis itself is an examination of the ability of poetic language to make us see visually, or at least to make us experience poetic meaning through visual metaphor.

I tend to approach this idea as a cognitive, phenomenological concept, so that’s the filter I’ll be using for this particular discussion


 There are, ostensibly, two types of ways that images can operate on a basic level, which I refer to as internal and external genesis.  The internal genesis is where, rather than describing a visual sensation, the poet conjures a sense of seeing and experiencing by suggesting the arrangement of elements that are already within the reader’s understanding.

 A regular user of this type of imager was Wordsworth, and a couple of verses pulled from his much longer poem ‘The idiot Boy’ make a good example.

But Betty’s bent on her intent,
For her good neighbour, Susan Gale,
Old Susan, she who dwells alone,
Is sick, and makes a piteous moan,
As if her very life would fail.

There’s not a house within a mile,
No hand to help them in distress;
Old Susan lies a bed in pain,
And sorely puzzled are the twain,
For what she ails they cannot guess.

Wordsworth doesn’t draw the image for you, instead, in the way the Romantics adored, the image comes filtered through human experience, and so we are told ‘there’s not a house within a mile’ leaving us to conjure the lonely pastoral house from our own conceptions. Similarly, are told that Susan ‘is sick’, and ‘lies a bed in pain’ but the image of an ill woman isn’t painted for us, it comes from inside and presses outwards on the experience of the poem, the meaning moving from our knowledge towards the poem.

 The External genesis is where the image is ‘painted’ for us by the poet. This is a more easily understood form of image and has been readily described by the poets and critics for thousands of years. 

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

The Roman poet ‘Horace’ called this ‘ut picture poesis’, paraphrased as ‘poetry is like painting’.  This form of imagery has been a favourite to many of the poetry movements over the years, the neo-classicists, romantics and modern poets had a lot of fun with it. It is probably most famous for its deliberate centralisation by the Imagists of the early 1900s. A number of very good examples can be found for this style, but I think William Carlos Williams is probably the most sophisticated but accessible poets of this type.  One simple example is his poem ‘The red Wheelbarrow’:

 The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

beaded with rain

beside the white

 Rather than asking us to conjure the image internally, the objects are painted for us by the poem. They are painted in minimalist, modernist terms certainly, but they are painted. This was Williams’ intent. He wanted us to see the objects, with the aim of breaking down the distance between the word and the thing.  In this way the meaning of the image is directed from its external existence into the reader and the meaning moves from poem to knowledge.


 The second point I wish to make about the cognitive operation of the image is the idea that the image as a figurative unit can be broken down into two halves. I call these the physical half and the symbolic half of an image. As I was casting my mind around for examples I passed a kebab shop and I thought that its name would make a fine example, so well go with that. It was ‘The Golden Kebab.’

 When something is being described as golden, how does it operate in terms of the dual existence of the image?

  The physical half of an image operates by referring to a real physical thing that could be seen and touched. A golden kebab, then, in this shop name would be a physical kebab made out of gold. Yellow, heavy, hard yet pliable and completely unappetising.  

Kebab (just ass)

Kebab (just ass)

But the name ‘the golden kebab’ isn’t operating on the physical level the way ‘The red wheelbarrow’ was. That was literally a red wheel barrow, and it’s the physical nature of the image that is being used in that poem.  With ‘the golden kebab’ the metaphor comes from the conceptual side of the image.

 In the conceptual sense refers to the symbolic connotations that are suggested by the physical thing, or the idea of the physical thing. Something golden is precious and valuable.  Something is golden if it is the best of its class, a golden boy, the golden child, the golden crown of a king. It implies authority, value, purity and supremacy. So ‘the golden kebab’ uses transference of the conceptual elements of gold for their metaphor, rather than the physical.


  Poetry is one of the ways a culture talks about itself, questions itself, its actions and its values. The image is the way in which experience is brought into the poetry and directed either from the reader into the poem, or from the poem towards a new understanding in the reader.  You can tell a lot about a society by looking at how they used the image in their poetry, it’s like a handshake. Everyone uses it, but always a little differently.



Wednesday Symposium and Internet Publishing

11 09 2009

This Wednesday just passed I was fortunate enough to attend a poetics symposium hosted by the University of Western Sydney and attended by some professional poets, academics as a few other meek postgraduate students. Turns out it was a blast. A controlled blast, certainly. The sort of blast most usually found inside the engines of the more sedate family sedans, but a blast nonetheless and with a good few units of intellectual horsepower.

I have less than no time to write today, so I’m not able to go into too much depth. The event, ostensibly, was scaffolded around the presentation of a few papers, and the discussion/launch of a new poetics book called Networked Language By Philip Mead. You can read a review of the book here. The reviewer, poet Pam Brown, was also at Wednesday’s meeting.

Amongst the various discussions that came up the question of the “value” of online publishing was discussed briefly. Specifically, the question was asked as to whether internet publishing by legitimate online literary publications, such as Cordite, have any value, or at least a greater value than just self publishing on your own blog. I don’t know.

My own thesis is that as the amount of unregulated crap* makes its way onto the bloggonettosphere the signal to noise ratio goes down to the point that ‘legitimate’ online publishers become devalued by association. Or, to perhaps phrase it more aptly, the ability to distinguish between content sites becomes more and more difficult, and legitimacy becomes something a publisher of online content needs to earn on an individual basis, rather than through a publishing medium. This is not to say that publishing somewhere like Cordite carries NO value. It still carries the stamp of non-self-validation. But how much is it worth? I don’t know.

In the words of The Onion. What do you think?



* I am aware of the hypocrisy of this statement.

New Fiction: Caught by Karen-Anne Coleman

25 08 2009

We have started publishing serialised fiction here at the Woolf and Maus (yes, just like Charles Dickens) and to kick off our series we are very excited to launch Caught, by Karen-Anne Coleman (that’s actually me – so in some ways writing this post does feel rather like the royal ‘we’).

Caught is set in Sydney, and tells the story of a remarkable photographer and his even more remarkable camera, through the eyes of his friend and landlady, Katy. As Katy learns more about this mystical man who lives in her basement, she discovers that he has touched the lives of other people in her neighbourhood too – in more ways than she would care to know. Caught is about what we mean to one another, how we love and how we let one another live.

The first chapter of Caught is available below, free to download in pdf format. For the next instalment, please click back soon.

Please also leave a comment below if you liked this work, telling us why!


Click here to download the first chapter of Caught:

Caught Chapter One by K A Coleman

My Father’s Face

24 08 2009

I didn’t get to write a blog on Friday like I do usually. The reason: illness. Not dire, not an aneurism, or the bubonic plague, or H1N1, or anything, but enough to keep me in my pyjamas and away from my keyboard for most of the weekend.

Nonetheless, last night I was well enough to go out, and my friends and I found ourselves talking about faces, and recognition, and I won’t bore you with the details. The conversation reminded me of a poem that I came across years ago. It’s called ‘My Father’s Face’ and it begins:

Every morning when I shave I see his face

Or something like a sketch of it gone wrong.

And it ends:

The prude and lecher in him moiled and

fought within the rough-house of his pride.

And killed each other when his body died.


And in the middle there is a very excellent poem by, I believe, and Australian male poet, but damned if I can remember his name. In fact, the author might have been British, Canadian, or Sudanese for all I know.

I would very much like to read this poem again. The phrase ‘My Father’s Face’ is so ubiquitous, however,  that Google provides far too many incorrect results for a single diamond to show through the rough.

If anyone can help me find a copy of this poem, I would be very grateful.

More from our modern JFK

12 08 2009

Since I wrote on Justin F. Kern’s photography over the weekend, the man himself responded with a small collection that shows just how the potential that I had eagerly anticipated in his increasingly sophisticated work is being realised. I had ask to see even more facets of our environment, and progressively complex ways of representing them. For the first time in this collection, sensuality genuinely bursts forth from his peach-coloured waves. Their hard, yet warm polymer surface offsets the organic tactility of his bark and tree trunks. Though they both focus on a curved surface, they juxtapose natural growth to man-made development, the adamantine and unyeilding to the brittle and crumbling, and two entirely different concepts of layering – one about decay (the revelation of new layers beneath dying others) and the other about intended revelation (where the creator only ‘lifts the skirts’ on the creation as much as s/he is willing to). The rainbow effect of lighting as it bursts through the spectrum of trees is breathtaking as it unifies some of these opposing elements. In this image, domesticated nature and artificial light come together to highlight the beauty of both human and natural forms of creation. Finally, the sailboat, so perfectly framed by it’s view from the jetty, is merely a destination at the end of the eye’s delightful meandering through an appreciation of the surfaces that have lead it there.

Bravo JFK! These are stunning.

I think it’s soon time for an exhibition.

Snapshots of an Aussie JFK

9 08 2009

Justin F. Kern (JFK) is a lanky bloke with a loud laugh and eerily spider-like limbs, which, until recently I had only seen wrapped around a camera when the man was attending weddings, ceremonious birthdays and other noteworthy occasions. Watching him during these functions, as he leapt, dived and squeezed himself into a range of necessary positions for the ‘ideal shot’, it was easy to tell that he had a good eye for framing, aesthetic and that most elusive of qualities – the human element. This final ephemeral ingredient is always the defining factor in taking a ‘technically good’ photograph into the realms of magic. Having said that, working with a bride and groom, or beaming flower girl, it often seems that anyone with a big enough lens at these ‘special occasions’ can be taking these kinds images ‘filled with meaning’ – so what is the difference between a photographer and an amateur having a good day?

The debate goes back to the beginning of photography – just ask William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneer photographer of the 1800s, or looked at another way, a very rich man with spare time and money up his sleeve to spend on a hobby. Was our dear Talbot, now revered as one of the grandfather’s of photography, a professional or amateur? And if he did become a professional, there must have been some time when he was still practicing as an amateur, training his skill – yes? Once again we return to another age old debate: the question of the artist or creator as genius vs hardworking and persistent labourer. The institutions of the ages have perpetuated the myth that artists, for instance, occupy a space almost of sainthood – in their ability to create something worthy of ‘holy’ reverence, objects which become relics in the museum space that should be determinedly conserved over the years as some meaningful production from the ‘artist’s hand’. The conceptual, and often historical, meaning of the work often has less relationship to the work itself than it does to the contemporary reception of the work. Though it may be sensually ‘uplifting’ (or not as is the case-in-point of postmodernism) to view a beautiful artwork it does not necessarily tell us much about why it was important historically.

Returning to our modern JFK, we begin to ask ourselves, why does the work of this young Australian, at the beginning of his experimental photographic career, intrigue us? The answer is emotive, as all good answers to intriguing visual imagery should be. There is a combination of heartstrings being pulled on in these images. In those of the outback I feel the connection to Ansel Adams, and joy at my own country’s landscape bursting so in outrageously celebratory colours. In the images of the pipes, emerging man, and light drawn onto the playing fields I appreciate the humour and irreverence brought to a visual plane and it’s representation of a country’s spirit. The fire images – at once beautiful and terrifying in their meaning, and the city lights that dazzle – all add to a multi-faceted portrait of our country that encapsulates many landscapes, experiences and moods.

What would I like to see from our JFK? More. I cannot to wait to see how his work matures, most importantly as he educates himself in other photographers and artists of Australia, and the globe, and uses their work to inform his own. I want to see many more faces of our nation and how they might be represented in increasingly complex ways. Most of all I want to see how he develops this theme of humour balanced with the land and people – ephemeral spirit emerging from within that which is actually seen – what I would call the visual equivalent of ‘reading between the lines’.

And what would I like to see from the rest of Australia? JFK, and other photographers like him, not only on gallery walls – but with a crowd standing around appreciating what the images have to offer them and their story.

The Sydney Peace Prize

4 08 2009
John Pilger

John Pilger

Before yesterday I didn’t know that Sydney had its own ‘Peace Prize’. It seems a bit odd, a bit like Paris having its own ‘orbital hygiene mechanics’ prize; not totally out of the question, but somehow not quite what one associates with the image of the city. The Sydney Peace Prize. Well, why not? There have been no major wars here, or even minor ones. There have been no civil uprisings, military coups, or bombings. Except for an undercurrent of barely concealed racial tension Sydney is just about as peaceful as you could hope for. Who better to be giving out a peace prize than a city described by Clive James of having the air of a population permanently on holiday? There is a contention to be made, perhaps, that a nation like France, or Spain, or such, might be better suited to the distribution of accolades for peace. This is on the basis that a long and bloody history of civil and international conflicts really gives a nation an understanding of the value of peace. But I say phooey to them. Let the prizes come from a country that has rarely seen the need for an alternative.

 At this point the thinking person might put up their hand and say, ‘wait a minute,’ and they would be right. Sydney bears a darker legacy than that: the Unacknowledged War that came to the country when, in 17xx, the endeavour dropped anchor and started the process of colonisation. A war was fought, acknowledged or not, and involved the trading of land for lives as much as any named war. The failure to acknowledge the reality of the conflict has been seen by many, like writer Peter Cary in his book 20 Days in Sydney, as one of the country’s greatest failings.

 It makes me wonder where a country, or city, gains the right to make awards for peace. I don’t think that there’s a way to earn it. Neither lengthy suffering nor enduring political stability seems to confer the right. Indeed, it would seem as hypocritical for Switzerland to award a peace prize as it would seem, perhaps, self serving for modern Berlin to award one too. I don’t think it’s possible to qualify for the right, but if Sydney’s dark heart motivates it to foster the pursuit of peace in the world… then good. We should encourage it.

 In that vein the winner of the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize is John Pilger. Pilger is an Australian journalist, film-maker and author. The Jury citation for the prize awarded it to Pilger “for courage as a foreign and war correspondent in enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard. For commitment to peace with justice by exposing and holding governments to account for human rights abuses and for fearless challenges to censorship in any form.”

 Previous awardees include “Nobel recipients Professor Muhammad Yunus and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Indian author and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy and, last year, the Aboriginal leader and ‘father of reconciliation’ Patrick Dodson.”


 University of Sydney press release: Here.

Article from Pigler’s website: Here.

Image taken from: Here.