Reading Through Perplexity and Grief

clip_image004Even the first epigraph is a hook. Thomas à Kempis. “Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.” A few months ago I read The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) by Will Schwalbe as I had promised myself. (See my blog posting “Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity” — October 2012). Schwalbe does well to honour his mother and the relationship he had with her, particularly through their shared reading, but for me the book lacks depth. Schwalbe’s career as a publisher is both an “in” and a distraction; he’s not a common reader and I couldn’t identify with him. By contrast, Nina Sankovitch’s, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (Harper, 2011) held me.

At dinner that night, I raised my glass of Italian white, just poured out by our efficient waiter, and looked Jack in the eye. I had his attention.

“To my year of reading,” I announced.

“You’re really going to do it?” he asked.

I nodded.

“A book a day? How about a book a week?” he asked.

No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and the pain.

It was time to stop running. It was time to stop doing anything and everything. It was time to start reading.

“To your year of reading, then,” Jack seconded, and clinked his glass with mine. “May it be everything you want it to be, and more.”

My mother suffered a stroke in late November, and I moved into her apartment in northwestern Connecticut to be close while she was in rehab working with the physio and occupational therapists. I found Tolstoy and the Purple Chair in a pile of books (more like a mountain of books) by her bed. At the end of Tolstoy Sankovitch lists the 365 works she had read that year, and mom had checked off the ones she had read. Continue reading

Dirty Tricks or Photographic Arts?

Lady Kristin

Lady Kristen – Copyright 2013 – Paul Vreeland

“… there is no such thing as an absolutely unmanipulated photograph.” 

Mia Fineman – curator Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A companion piece to “No News from Poems: Story Truth and Happening Truth”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time and laziness is not the only reason why it’s been delayed. As a “slog” (slow blog), I can say that, until Lionel Stevenson’s recent book launch at the Confederation Centre of the Arts Gallery, it wasn’t ready to be written.  It had begun weeks ago as a post about photography having a bad reputation as a conveyer of truth, and how things go downhill rapidly when we consider what happens after the camera shutter has been pressed.

Lionel Stevenson is a distinguished and well-known Prince Edward Island photographer. A retrospective, “career survey” of his work, “Fifty Years of Photographs,” had been on exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts since last October until this month. I took in the exhibit several times and loved what I saw. The prints were gallery large and with few exceptions were black and whites. Stevenson’s subjects ranged from portraits of Islanders, to barns, wintry street scenes, and huge erratics—boulders deposited by glaciers at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. My curiosity was piqued by the brief curator’s note, “Stevenson’s contention is that subject matter is largely secondary…” I had learned that if I wanted to make beautiful photographs I had to be alert to beautiful subjects. I had learned that beautiful photography was dependent upon beautiful subjects. In other words, the subject was everything. Well, almost. The application of artistic skill is supposedly responsible for the rest.  evans_wife3

This posting is, once again, about art and truth. In “No News from Poems” I wrote about the truth that fiction would offer relative to the truth that creative non-fiction asserts. That discussion has a parallel arising from a confusion of purposes served by photography. Is it the duty of the photography to record and document the truth as does creative non-fiction? Or is it the function of the photographic arts, like that of the short story, to probe the nuances of more subjective truths? (And I would agree with those who say the function of fiction is simply to entertain. But I would ask, is it possible to be entertained without an engagement that begs the reader to resonate in some way with character—a resonance descriptive of our human condition—descriptive of a truth?)  Both discussions are founded on what is “seen” on a purely materialistic plane and the meaning of “seeing” or “envisioning” on a more spiritual level.

Lionel Stevenson is a master printer. He worked as an assistant to American documentary photographer Berenice Abbott.  It is important to note here that Abbott, was of the pure or straight photography school.  Popularized in the 1930s by photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans, straight photography held to a realism and objectivity that renounced methods of image manipulation. It was distinguished by high contrast, sharp focused, uncropped prints—images that were “representational”—creative non-fiction, if you will. (Right: Straight Photograph — Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama, by Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

Straight photography was a refutation of the Pictorialist Movement of the late 19th century in which images were manipulated and processed to look like paintings. In fact a number of painters including Manet, Cézanne and Gauguin used photography in their work. The pictorialists are to photography what fiction writers are to literature. Steichen The Flatiron

“Work straight,” a critic is reported to have said. Produce photographs, not imitation fine art. And the purists renounced soft focus, darkroom trickery, drawing or scratching on negatives, and gum printing.

Whether an image is bathed in chemicals in a darkroom or is digitally enhanced by software, the term we use is “post-processing”– “post” because it refers to all the work, all the processing that is done after the shooting, after the camera has done its job. (Right: Pictorialist, The Flatiron Building by Edward Steichen who trained as a painter. The photo was taken in 1904 before the advent of colour film. Here Steichen achieved an artistic moodiness through a process that suspended pigments in gum bichromate over platinum prints.)

Why is this important to me? In Stevenson’s work I find a hint of what it is that I try to accomplish. Perhaps by understanding him I can come to a better understanding of what I am about. You see I spend a lot of time post-processing images and the debate for me is about the manipulation of the image. I found it difficult to reconcile the notion that “the subject is secondary” to a straight documentary photographer; I didn’t understand how realism and objectivity can be reconciled with a concentration on the processing of the image after the shutter has been pressed.  There is something akin to a moral dilemma here, because an adherence to the lofty goals of realism and objectivity has given post-processing a bad wrap. Post-processing is, shockingly, a dirty word in the vocabulary of many accomplished photographers – those who should know better, as well as the neophytes who promote an ignorance that “the camera doesn’t lie,” – a fallacy dating back to 1895.

He looked up from the proof at me and said:
‘Good Lord! Do I look like that?’
‘The camera doesn’t lie about such things’, I replied. (1)

This is not another article on the use of the photographic arts to deceive. There’s a host of worthy articles out there such as the art review by Ken Johnson in The New York Times, “Their Cheating Art: Reality and Illusion—‘Faking It at the Met, a Photography Exhibition” (2). Or, as one post title read: “Photos don’t lie, but liars use photographs to deceive…”(3)  We live in a culture of photographic deception. Just take a look at the tabloids when you’re standing in line at the grocery checkout—the celebrity victims of extreme weight gains, losses and aging.   Think about it. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word photoshopped? This aspect of the photographic arts has been deemed “evil” and a “sin.”

The preeminent tool for contemporary post-processing is Adobe Corporation’s software known as Photoshop, and when an image is said to have been “photoshopped”, we often mean that it has been stripped of its veracity and journalistic integrity. To ‘photoshop’ is to lie. I’m not the only one concerned about this. David Peterson posted an article questioning, “Is Post-Processing Evil?” Peterson writes:

Artists can be a self-righteous bunch. There will always be the purists, those who don’t even own a digital camera, and then there are those who recognize the importance of Photoshop and other tools. When it comes to the ethics of photography, post-processing tends to get the bad end of the stick because it involves the direct manipulation of a photo after it’s been taken. There is always the opportunity to cover up bad photography with computer-generated effects, so some consider it to be evil. But is it?

I’d like to offer a couple of points in defense of post-processing, not because it needs defending, but because I need to understand what I am doing.

First, the lie begins in the camera. There is no perfect lens, and the truth of what we see is distorted by whatever piece of glass is in front of the sensor or film. The truth is also altered by the choices the photographer makes before the shot is taken—choices of aperture, exposure, shutter speed and ISO. As the well-known American photographer Edward Steichen said, “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible.” And who in their right mind believes in a realism that witnessed the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, or the testing of the atomic bomb at Bikini atoll in black and white. That reality is limited to those who are colour blind.

Secondly, post-processing can help render an image to more closely replicate what the human eye sees. A case in point is a trendy technique called HDR which stands for high dynamic range.  The human eye is at least ten times more sensitive to luminosity or a range of brightness than is the camera. Most of us have taken a photo in which the sky offers up its true brilliance but our subject, Uncle Wally or whoever, turns out to be a dark silhouette. Or maybe Uncle Wally is properly rendered and the sky is a blinding white. To compensate for the technological shortcomings of the camera, some photographers take multiple photos of their subjects, each at a different exposure setting.  Through post-processing the different exposures can be layered to create an image that better approximates the human eye. Unfortunately HDR is contributing to the notion that post-processing is evil because the technique is popularly abused. The internet is awash in HDR images so blatantly over the top that no human eye could have ever perceived the subject so. Peter West Carey, in a post titled “Knowing My Limits – Why I Don’t Do HDR” writes:

It’s not that HDR is totally evil (just mostly) and should be done away with. I know it’s a bit of a craze and newfangled thing right now. Just stop taking it too far and stop using it in place of proper exposure and accepting the limits of the scene in front of you. There is so much great stuff to learn about proper exposure that the HDR gadget can just sit at the back of the drawer like the outgrown toy it has become. Care to differ? Please do! Just keep it civil.(4)

I would agree. If you can tell that an image is HDR, then you’ve crossed the line. You want the image to stand out, not the technique that produced it. I can hear the critics of the pictorialists saying that. By the way, the photo above, Lady Kristen, is an HDR image.

Camera technology has advanced to the point where we now need to ask is HDR a post-processing technique. What if the HDR processing is done in camera? Several digital cameras now offer that feature. And apps for iPhones and other smart phone cameras enable users to snap HDR photos.

But hold on. What if the photographer doesn’t want to render a scene as his human eye “sees” it? What if he wants to render it as his imagination “sees” it? What if he is less concerned with capturing an image than in creating a new one? What if he wants to document his vision? What if the harsh, garish reality of what the photographer envisioned is best rendered by an over-the-top and in-your-face HDR treatment? I’ve gone too far, but I want to make a point about the seeming difference between documenting a truth and creating a new one. Which brings me back to Lionel Stevenson who said,

Although the referent is important in my photographs, and it is the stimulus to pick up the camera, for me the photograph is more important than its referent. [It] is essentially about what pleases my eye. I want to make beautiful sheets of paper.”(5)

Mind you, Stevenson is a straight photographer. He’s a documentary photographer who wants “his prints to be as true as possible to what he originally saw.”(6). But, for Stevenson, it’s not about snapping pictures, rather, it is the much slower matter of controlling the process to enable the aesthetic object to emerge.

At the recent launch of his book I shared my questions with him. I pressed Stevenson about being a straight photographer and post-processing.

“Yes,” he said, “When you go out, you remember what you see, you remember the grayscales.”

“But,” I countered. “Is it a matter of your physical eye or is it something greater? Is it a vision?”

He nodded and drew my attention to a quote by Berenice Abbott in the book I had just purchased.

The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objective is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework—that to me is the art of photography.(6)

Is there a difference between a recorded documented truth and one created by art? Maybe. If we limit our understanding to one perspective and accept all others as “wrong”. And maybe not. Maybe it’s not a question of one or the other, but a matter of one and the same. Here, for me, is the reconciliation. For photographers like Stevenson, print-making and post-processing are the arts that bridge the gap across a false dichotomy to create a new documentary truth seen someplace between the eye, the mind, and the soul. Simply seen, but not so simply rendered.

Am I a straight photographer or a pictorialist? I don’t know yet. But I do know that this is creative non-fiction.


The Sandusky Register, Sandusky, Ohio, February 1895 (see




5 Lionel F. Stevenson – Fifty Years of Photographs / Cinquante ans de photographie (1962-2012), Pan Wendt, Acorn Press, Charlottetown, 2013, p. 9.

6 Ibid, p. 10.

7 Ibid, p. 13.

No News from Poems: Story Truth and Happening Truth

Crow Drive

Crow Drive – copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland — “All photos are lies.”
Coming soon, the “No News from Poems: The Photography Companion Piece

As I write this, Mary-Ellen is taking the train back to Hartford after having visited Hilda’s gallery in the backwoods of the western Massachusetts boondocks. She’s trying to digest the intensity of Hilda’s questions, knows that something of inner significance has transpired, and, in trying to recollect what has happened, finds little to hold on to, except the gift of Cézanne’s pen. And so it is in my unfinished novel — a work of fiction. I’m lying.

Picasso is reputed to have said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” During the past several weeks I’ve been preoccupied with the nature of art and truth, more precisely the nature of writing and truth. It started during a working session of a writers group I belong to. We were critiquing a poem about an event in the author’s life, and I suggested the deletion of a couple of words that I thought weakened the piece. The author, a seasoned journalist, defended her work claiming that she wrote about the event as it happened and, if the words were taken out, she would be lying. Too late for her to heed the advice of Archibald MacLeish: “Young poets are advised by their elders to avoid the practice of journalism as they would wet socks and gin before breakfast.”

Well, poetry is not journalism. We know that. And if my friend’s work was edited to become a stronger poem and a journalistic lie, what truth would the poem then tell? So how is art the lie that tells the truth? On one level the question is a philosophical one, and there is no shortage of verbiage on Historical Truth vs. Poetic Truth. But I am not satisfied with the answers Aristotle and Plato offer.

Why am I taken up with this? Why has it become an issue that I cannot let drop? I have found that writing is an exercise in honesty, a striving to become ever truer to a voice, and in the case of the unfinished novel, writing truer to the wills of characters like Mary Ellen and Zach. Honesty is more than an moral imperative; it’s hard work and it takes times. This is the third revision of “No News from Poems” because the earlier drafts weren’t as honest to this essay as I want to be. And it is through writing, and through the help of others in the writers groups I belong to who critique my work and point out my weaknesses, that I discover what I am about, and what I want to say.

Why am I taken up with this? I do a slow wake up and realize that Mary-Ellen has brought me back to this. She is the immediate reason why I need to explore the question. You see, Mary-Ellen is an aspiring journalist and her writing is paralyzed by the thin line between writing from the head and writing from the heart. I’ve given in to Mary-Ellen before because she is my character and I want to know who she is, what makes her tick. She is also the reason I’ve read David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire, and Capote’s In Cold Blood. Zach, another character in the unfinished novel has asked me to read The Port Huron Statement. Mary-Ellen and Zach are fictional characters living out a life in the canyons and ideological divides of the 1960s. They’re fictional characters, the fruit of my lies, and they are influencing the decisions I make about how I spend my time. Mary Ellen may be the immediate reason for this questioning, but I’m beginning to see how larger “issues” are slowly being worked out through her. She has had the upper hand this month.

In an earlier chapter Mary Ellen read the serialization published in The New Yorker magazine that later became In True Blood. She made a trip out to Holcolm, Kansas, to see how the landscape compared with Capote’s descriptions. She wanted to know if he was telling the truth and if he could be trusted, because the idea of narrative non-fiction meant something to her.

What truth would the poem tell? What truth will Mary-Ellen reveal? Whenever I have questions I research. Google first, libraries second. Using Google I find a curriculum for high school students particularly relevant—David Reynold’s “The New Journalism: Narrowing the Gap between Fact and Fiction” offered by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute[1]. I know that I am on the right track because In Cold Blood is one of three books it features. In lesson one, Reynolds asks his students to define “fact” and to identify the types of literature where facts are found. Another lesson assigns them the task of determining what is meant by “the truth.”

Working my way through Reynold’s curriculum I read The Things They Carried next. What a treasure. Tim O’Brien, writing about writing, offers more answers to Mary-Ellen’s question. He’s is an excellent writer, and I find The Things They Carried a compelling read. O’Brien talks about the vagaries of Truth in a chapter entitled “How to Write a True War Story.” He says, “It’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.” Obrien

O’Brien is beginning to talk about the same problems of honesty that I mentioned above. Again, it’s not an easy matter of just sitting down, picking up the pen and deciding to write the truth. I identify with him because he’s honest about his struggles with honesty; howbeit I think he’s been more successful. I appreciate the example he offers of his story, “Speaking of Courage.” That story is followed by a confessional chapter entitled “Notes” in which he explains how “Speaking,” first published in The Massachusetts Review in 1976 and later anthologized in the O’Henry Awards Prize stories, was true, but not true enough. “Something about the story had frightened me,” O’Brien wrote. “I was afraid to speak directly, afraid to remember – and in the end the piece had been ruined by a failure to tell the full and exact truth about our night in the shit field…. When the piece appeared in an anthology of short fiction, I sent a copy off to Norman Bowker [his combat buddy who inspired the story] with the thought that it might please him. His reaction was short and somewhat bitter. “It’s not terrible,” he wrote me, “but you left out Vietnam. Where’s Kiowa? Where’s the shit?” Eight months later Bowker hanged himself.

If I were teaching Reynold’s curriculum, I might ask the students to read “Speaking of Courage” and note only the facts. I might ask them to re-write it as a newspaper article. Playing the news editor, I’d ask them, “So, what’ve you got?” Perhaps the exercise would prove the point that Reynold’s makes:

Facts rarely appeal to the emotions and almost never approach the implicit reasoning for actions; they contain small conflicts if any, and similarly do not require or inspire passionate responses.

It’s easy to write the facts, especially when they’re fresh. Journalism must, by nature, respond to calls for immediacy. The information must be “timely,” and if it is not timely it’s not journalism. What appeals to emotion and reasoned response comes later through reflection. There is a distancing in time and space between an event be it a mortar attack or the announcement of this week’s market price for potatoes, and the stories and poems the event inspires. “With distance, one also sees more clearly,” writes Yahia Lababidi. “Art as I understand it, and this includes philosophy, is about cultivating a certain distance so that we might, in turn, lend our vision to those in the thick of historic events. Which is to say, one cannot evaluate the play while sharing the stage with the actor.” We need both “speed of coverage and slowness of reflection.” Lababidi writes with an inspired eloquence, and her article, “Poetry, and Journalism of the Spirit,” is the most insightful I’ve read this month. I recommend it highly.

“It’s time to be blunt,” O’Brien writes opening a chapter titled “Good Form”:

It’s time to be blunt.

I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”

Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

Time enables O’Brien to distance himself from the mortar attack he writes about in “Courage.” And having had the benefit of even more time and distance, he sees it from another vantage point, retells the story and offers another truth. Vision, re-vision.

It’s time to be blunt. I’ve written hundreds of pages about the war in Vietnam—a war I didn’t experience directly. I wasn’t there; I didn’t go. I wrote my war stories, The Biography of Not Being There, about my time in the US Army in 1969 in the first person. I tried to be honest. But my attempts were not honest enough to satisfy me. Now the unfinished novel finds Mary-Ellen and Zach caught up in the events of that same time. The stories I tell are informed by my experiences, but the novel is fiction, and I know there are things that will happen in the story that will surprise me. Something compels me to write about being young in New England during that era. Is it survivor’s guilt that drives me? I don’t know. A lot of it, whatever it is, has to do with the truth and the betrayal of truth. And a lot of it, whatever it is, has to do with vision and re-vision. There are some truths that become evident when presented in the first person, and other truths are discovered in the second. Some truths can be presented through the immediacy of journalism, and different truths through the lenses of fiction and poetry.

In 2011 Tim O’Brien spoke at the Arlington Public Library. He read his short-story, “Ambush,” and confessed that it too is purely the product of a novelist’s imagination. None of it is true, he said, and then described it as being “completely and utterly true–truer than true,” explaining how art is the lie that tells the truth. “When you turn on the news,” he said, “what do you get, eight died today by an IUD in Bagdad. You get a number and maybe a place, and that’s it. You get very little beyond that.” The intent of this story “Ambush” is to look at one event, one death and to “give a face to something that is largely anonymous.” He said:

“I participated in dozens, scores, maybe fifty ambushes… and this story is a way of gathering together all that terror and all those long nights in the dark waiting to die or to kill–one or the other—into one story focused in time and in energy and geography—a single trail junction—bring together those myriads of forgotten places, forgotten nights that was my time in Vietnam into something you might see and smell and feel. It’s a way of collapsing my own thoughts years afterwards, looking back at those long nights into a single event in the hope that you might feel something of what I felt…”

You can watch O’Brien’s hour-long presentation on line.

The Things They Carried is about a soldier’s experiences in Vietnam. It’s a book that explores the process of writing and the efficacy of fiction. It’s also a book of moral philosophy. It’s a book I would recommend to Mary-Ellen. The trouble is, Mary Ellen, taking a train back to Hartford, is occupying a space in time predating the publication of The Things They Carried. The trouble is, Mary-Ellen can compel me to read her book list, but I can’t compel her to read mine. The trouble is Mary-Ellen doesn’t know that while she rides that train towards Hartford, Charlie Company is preparing to enter the village of My Lai and that the American nation will be victimized by undifferentiated story truths and happening truths.

The men of Charlie Company, preparing to go into My Lai, were told that whatever they would find was the enemy. “There are no civilians,” Captain Medina said. News of the subsequent massacre of mothers, infants, children, and old men was suppressed. But the persistence of Seymour Hersh, a dedicated investigative journalist, brought the My Lai massacre and the cover up to the public’s attention in 1969, and he received the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

At the time I was a boot-camp recruit at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and I wanted to rub the My Lai massacre in the faces of my superiors. I remember the day they had us run at sandbags with fixed bayonets. We were to scream and run and stab the bags. The drill instructors watched as I ran and stabbed the bags, screaming, “Kill the babies. Kill the babies,” thinking is this what you’re training us to be?” A few months later a coalition of artists in New York City took the now famous colour photograph of dead My Lai children and made it into a protest poster. One weekend I went to New York and brought copies of the posters back to the base and distributed them, an action for which I could have been charged.

O’Brien helps me to understand that there is nothing moral or immoral about the average soldier’s participation in a war. The men of Charlie Company were broken men. And how can you expect someone who has lost a moral compass, someone who has grown up in a church and has heard the sermon “Thou shalt not kill” and then has come under the authority of another who says, “Kill and if you fail to follow orders, you will be shot for treason,” how can you expect that person to account for the truth. There are no standards for a broken man. The survivors of Charlie Company, like the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, like the First Nation survivors of the residential schools, spend years grappling with the story truth and the happening truth. After more than forty years, O’Brien says he’s still sorting it out. Is it possible that we are all victims of history, that we are all suffering forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that we are all trying to find the honest stories that tell us who we are and what really happened to us? Or maybe the trauma hasn’t ended yet and there is no “post.” Maybe we’re holding on to moral compasses that no longer work as they once did. Is it possible that we are listening, waiting to hear our true voices and to recognize ourselves? I feel that part of me is locked in 1969—a part of me that needs to tell a story, and retell it in order to catch a glimpse of what really happened, or is still continuing to happen.

“And so it is that I have come to realize the role of poetry in times of crisis: Vision.” writes Yahia Lababidi. “By ‘vision’ I mean that unblinking witness is only half of the equation. This is what I mean by seeing over the head of the times. It is not enough to bear witness to Now; journalists, to an extent, do that. Poetry lends us a third (metaphysical) eye, one that collapses distances, at once reminding us of our essential selves and who we can become. This vision provokes more insight than mere sight…Poetry, at its finest, can restore our sight.”

Earlier in this post I wrote, “Poetry is not journalism. We know that.” I could be wrong. Jane Dwyer Garton writes of a collaborative effort between the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Poetry Foundation: “Make It News: A Symposium on Poetry and Journalism.” Garton describes the second part of the 2007 symposium that “looked at the poet as journalist and the journalist as poet to examine what poets and journalists can learn from each other. The premise of the session: ‘Increasingly, poets are writing documentary poems that ‘report’ on an event. Many journalists also turn to poetic prose in order to convey a perspective that cannot otherwise be presented.’[2]

I think of two Nova Scotians. Both journalists, both poets. Alden Nowlan and George Elliott Clarke. Clarke said, “I’ve always thought that there was an artistic component to journalism, that it was related to poetry and that it was good to try and blend them as much as possible.”[3]

And Alden Nowlan. Here’s his poem “In the Newsroom”.[4]

Phone the woman’
whose husband and kids
were killed, we need
more information, the
editor says.
And each time you expect
they’ll hang up
after cursing you
for the ghoul
you know yourself to be.

But that almost never happens.
Almost always they sound
very formal but pleased
the newspaper has called.
Often they’ll insist
you hold the line while they check
a date or a spelling.

Not having had time
as yet to remember
that death is permanent.

How I love Nowlan, and how I love this poem. And yet, as I include it here, I notice that Nowlan uses the same words as my fellow writer in the writers group. You remember how I suggested the deletion of certain words to make her poem stronger? They’re here. The words “almost always”. But in this case I say, leave them in. Leave them in.


[2] “Take Me to the Intersection of Poetry and Journalism”

[3] “Poetic Journalism,” by Nina Paris in The King’s Review

[4] from The Best of Alden Nowlan – selected and introduced by Allison Mitcham, Lancelot Press, Hantsport, NS, 1993.