On Negative Images

A photographic negative is a technological necessity, an inversion that has to take place in order to turn reality into image, a required middle step in the reduction of three-dimensional "reality" into two-dimensional art. We don't study it , because a negative image is a study. Its lit blackness and blackened light (the ways that a negative "defamiliarizes" reality, in Jakobson's term) are only instrumental, only a part of a restoration of the way things ought to look.

A poetic negative image is not so simply a step in a reduction of the dimensions of an "original." This particular experiment was invented, as far as I know, by the brilliant poet-teacher A. McA. Miller of New College in Sarasota, Florida. The procedure is simple. A poet chooses a poem from the past which she admires. She studies it. Then she writes the verbal analog to the photographic negative image by "oppositing" the admired original. Black becomes white, cold hot, silk sandpaper. Enjambed lines are end-stopped. Questions become exclamations. Steamy passion condenses into icy loathing. Rhyming metrical regularity becomes unrhymed "free" verse. And the original poem disappears.

Or does it? As one experimenter puts it, "the weirdest thing about these opposites is how one does and doesn't own them." The best negative image poems amount to essays on the original: no craft-conscious poet can help but discover secrets about their heroes along the way. The experiment also provides a test case for Eliot's notions of the relationship between a poet and the past. Here admiration meets envy and emulation meets avoidance. Composing a negative image, one begins to feel what ancient poets in an oral tradition must have felt when it was their turn to stand up and perform: how, indeed, were they to avoid repeating the successful moves of the poets who had recited before them (poetry being all about memory)? Surely they did not feel our twentieth century concern that one not "merely reproduce the last poem," and surely their bets were not so heavy on any notion of an "individual talent." Watch, and listen with your inner ear, for two very special moments in these poems: 1) when the original poem happily defeats the negative image experiment and coerces a " positive" term, line, or image; and 2) when the negative image seems to find within the measure or the argument of the original a space completely its own.

You will find one other kind of poem featured here: poems not so strictly emulative (or dis-emulative!) as the negative image experiments but still in direct confrontation or argument with past poems. Following each new poem here you will find the title of the poem from the past that forms its positive or confrontational base.

--Daniel Bosch

Submit negative images (with titles of widely available originals, or with a copy of more obscure originals) for consideration for use in this space to:


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