Alfred Stieglitz is one of America's most prominent and celebrated photographers who chronicled early 20th-century America. Stieglitz created the photograph "The Steerage" used in this lesson plan.
Credit: Image of Stieglitz courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Ut pictura poesis ("As is painting, so is poetry," Horace, Ars Poetica)
Through close looks at the physical aspects of Alfred Stieglitz's 1907 photograph "The Steerage" and the imagery in William Carlos William’s 1962 poem "Danse Russe," students will explore how poetry can be, in Plutarch's words, "a speaking picture," and a painting (or in this case a photograph) can be "a silent poetry." They will learn to support their analyses with detailed description of form, first by participating in a class-wide process of observing shapes, lines, shadows, and other physical attributes of a photograph and by fully fleshing out the imagery of a poem, and then by finding other poetry and photography through the EDSITEment website listings to engage with independently.
How is reading a poem like looking at a photograph?
Looking at a work of visual art can be a little more complicated than we might think. It may seem obvious what to look at—i.e., whatever is within the frame or gathered in the box or sculpted in the corner. But to do the art justice, we need to linger a little longer and be aware of how the art is very subtly shifting and focusing our gaze and, in turn, our emotional or intellectual response.
One way to appreciate this is to recognize that though the work of art—a photograph, for example—looks unmoving, it is figuratively full of movement. It is dynamic rather than static. Lines, shapes, tone, color—all of these formal elements make the photograph vital and force spectators into a very active experience. We need to follow lines, linger over shapes or areas of light and dark, respond to a splatter of surprising color.
Poetry can engage readers in like manner. Imagery—which by definition appeals to the senses—actively affects our appreciation and comprehension of the poem as a whole. Often the most fulfilling reading of a poem is one in which we have used—in our imaginations at least—most or all of our senses. When we have put ourselves inside the experience of the poem, tried to see what the poet wishes us to see, tried to feel, to taste, and to hear. Denotation and connotation of color, shape, line, and object all have their effect; perspective shifts, moods change, revelations ensue. Our experience is expertly managed by the art itself.
Actually there is a long history of seeing connections between art and poetry. Depending on how much historical context you have time for, you may want to say something about the tradition of aesthetic criticism begun with Horace’s interestingly controversial assertion "ut pictura poesis" ("as is painting, so is poetry") or Plutarch's "poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens" ("poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent [mute] poetry"). See The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for the Liberal Arts website, for a history of the term as used by theorists, philosophers, critics, and artists. John Graham’s entry in The Dictionary traces the term from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and into modern scholarship. He notes that from the term's initiation, "particular emphasis was always placed on the ability of the poet (or orator) to make his listener see the object, and of the painter to make his viewer understand meaning as well as imagine action." Graham adds, "the theory of ut pictura poesis is applied in many ways. It may mean that the poet, without any real attempt to compete with the painter, should give enough concrete detail for the reader to form an accurate and vivid picture. This position was particularly common in the early eighteenth century, especially when critics examined the nature of metaphor. An equally important meaning may involve the poet's control over the reception of detail. The poet may 'frame' or 'light' a scene, or he may carry a reader from 'foreground' to 'middle ground' to 'background,' often using the painter's terminology." (The idea has its detractors as well, who find it reductive in a confusion of different genres and oversimplified analogies.)
Some familiarity with the formal terminology for the discussion of art (particularly line, color, light, space, and composition) would be valuable for both teachers and students. See Art Access for a glossary of terms on the EDSITEment-reviewed Art Institute of Chicago website. You can add terms like "chiaroscuro" and "cool" to the basics. Also see the EDSITEment lesson plans "Everything In Its Right Place: An Introduction to Composition in Painting," "Horse of a Different Color: An Introduction to Color in the Visual Arts" and "An Introduction to the Relationship between Composition and Content in the Visual Arts" for definitions of composition, focal point, line, proportion, motion, perspective, color hues and color schemes.
For some assistance with the specific task of reading photographs (as distinct from other visual arts), consult the following lesson plan, "Analyzing Photographs" which emphasizes distinctions between "description," "reflection," and "analysis" on The Getty, an EDSITEment-reviewed website. Additional helpful background is available on the LearnNC website, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library—"Reading photographs," by Melissa Thibault and David Walbert, provides a list of basic observations to make of photographs (in addition to the subject-relevant questions of who, what, where, when, and why), including the focus, focal point, setting, details of composition, and what has been included and omitted.
Though Stieglitz's photograph and Williams's poem were produced some decades apart, they serve as useful objects for this lesson, as would other art-photographs with a person or persons as a focus and other imagist or modernist poems: each relies on the human subject; imagery is essential for each; each frames a very particular moment of emotional content (in this case, parallel content, perhaps, related to loneliness, family, even joy). Consider poets Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, James Wright, and Wallace Stevens in particular. See the EDSITEment-reviewed The Academy of American Poets site for "A Brief Guide to Imagism" and "A Brief Guide to Modernism" for descriptions of those movements. (Abstract photography and poetry could work for this lesson, but more narrative or idea-based poetry should probably be saved for other lessons.)
After a brief look at the photograph, ask students to write down what they think it is “about.” (Use Worksheet Number 1) Students are likely to stick close to the most overt subject of the photograph—a child, some immigrants, etc. At the end of your discussion, you can ask them to write down a revised statement, one that will be far more informed and precise. At this later stage, their statements will likely be modified to reflect students’ appreciation of tone, mood, or message.
Next, ask students to describe everything they see in Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph “The Steerage.” Try to keep them on description and away from analysis for the time being. The goal is to help them focus on the physical attributes of the art as much as possible, to see the subtlest of physical details. If necessary, you can stimulate discussion by asking:
For every observation they have made in the inquiry above, ask “why?” or “with what consequence or result?” Explore the effects of the details to which their descriptions point:
At this stage, the goal is to shift from description to reflection and analysis:
Now invite students to revise their initial impressions. Ask them to draw conclusions about this particular work. To what ‘whole’ do the parts add up? What different possible readings result? What attitude toward the photograph’s subjects do they discern? If they claim either celebration or criticism, for example, can they use their observations above to support those claims? Can they argue the opposite of their first impressions?
After a reading or two of the poem, ask students to write down what they think it is “about.” (Again, use Worksheet Number 1.) As they may have done with the photograph, students are likely to stick close to the most explicit subject. At the end of your discussion, you can ask them to write down a revised statement, one that will be far more informed and precise. At this later stage, their statements will likely be modified to reflect students’ appreciation of tone, mood, or message.
Ask students to describe what it would be like see everything evoked in William Carlos Williams’ “Danse Russe.” If necessary, you can stimulate discussion by asking:
Explore the effects of their observations. For every observation they have made in the inquiry above, ask “why?” or “with what consequence or result?” Explore the effects of the details—of imagery and its connotations—to which their descriptions point:
At this stage, the goal is to shift from pure description to reflection and analysis:
Now invite students to revise their initial impressions. Ask them to draw conclusions about this particular work. To what ‘whole’ do the parts add up? What different possible readings result? What attitude toward the poem’s subjects do they discern? If they claim either celebration or criticism, for example, can they use their observations above to support those claims? Can they argue the opposite of their first impressions?
Any photographs (meant to be art, rather than snapshots or pure documentation, for example) with human subjects and more realistic than not, matched with imagist or other modernist poetry will work well for students' individual practice. Find photographs in the Photography section at the Art Institute of Chicago site, the Museum of Modern Art's online collection of photographs, and the Image Bank on the Getty website.
In addition to Williams, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, James Wright, and Wallace Stevens would be especially suitable poets for students to read for their independent projects. Each can be searched on the Academy of American Poets site. Students can use Worksheet Number 2 to keep track of their descriptions and ensuing analyses. These worksheets can be done independently or with a partner.
1. Ask students to take a photograph (or do a drawing and/or description of an imagined photograph) to illustrate the meaning of a poem chosen from one of the EDSITEment-reviewed links below. Emphasize that the goal is not to simply reproduce the main subject of the poem (e.g., the dancing naked man in "Danse Russe"); rather, students should aim to represent the poem's mood or message (dependent, of course, on the student’s final reading of the poem). An explanation should accompany their artwork; ask them to include reference to a certain number of physical attributes from the basics (composition, color, light, line, shape, etc.).
2. Ask students to write a poem to accompany one of the photographs from the EDSITEment-reviewed links below. As with the project above, suggest to students that their goal is not to write a poem about the photograph, but to write a poem whose poetic qualities evoke for them the mood, tone, or meaning of the poem. Here too an explanation should supplement their work; ask them to refer to a certain number of poetic devices (sound devices like alliteration, euphony, cacophony, onomatopoeia, rhythm or rhyme, or to the use of particular details of their imagery) in the process.
3. Ask students to turn their worksheets into fully realized critical paragraphs in which they overtly link their descriptions to analyses. Their goal is to express what specific subject, object, message, or mood is ultimately created by the artist’s use of form or imagery. What commentary on the experience of immigrants, for example, does Stieglitz's placement of figures in the frame, use of light and dark, and so on, finally offer? Similarly, what does Williams's poem want the reader to recognize about his subject? What is the student's evidence for his or her conclusion?
Direct students to the Academy of American Poets website where they can listen to recitations of poems. Ask them to come to class prepared to describe what they hear—e.g., the speaker's tone, where he or she pauses in her reading, where he or she raises or lowers his or her voice, what words are emphasized. (You may want to review relevant terms like alliteration, rhyme, consonance and assonance, cacophony, etc. Explore the effects; discuss or write about how sound is contributing to sense. Let students recite the poems they have studied.
1-3 class periods