By Stuart Mitchner
It’s transcendent, you feel it. It’s there, the vanished transcendence and insistence of chance, action and fortuity. It’s there and you can’t unfeel it.
—Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Walker Evans is talking about the impact of the moment he encountered “a visual object” he knew he had to photograph. If you read those words after wading through the tide of raw imagery unleashed by the January 6 storming of the Capitol, you know what it means to feel a force so insistent that “you can’t unfeel it.”
In the opening chapter of Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (Princeton Univ. Press $39.95), Svetlana Alpers refers to poet William Carlos Williams’s review of Evans’s groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photography (“the pictures talk to us and they say plenty”). Focusing on the poet and photographer’s shared “passionate belief in American art as they made it,” Alpers quotes from a poem by Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
The idea that poetry and photography have the power to enhance or sustain or even save a life resonates on January 20, 2021, whether in relation to the Capitol riots or the inauguration of the 46th president, who found therapy for a childhood disability by reciting the poetry of William Butler Yeats. The “news from poems” in this tumultuous month ranges from the “terrible beauty is born” of Yeats to President Biden’s campaign mantra by way of Seamus Haney: “Make hope and history rhyme.” more