PhD student, Creative Writing
It has always struck me as peculiar that academics tend to conceal personal origins or motives for their research. More often than not our deep investment in a subject or area of study appears to have emerged out of a vacuum or with disinterest. Little is said of how intellectual concepts bear a significant and abiding relation with, or are even a sublimation of, our innermost vulnerabilities or concerns.
As a response to this observation, I wish to present a kind of prequel to my area of research (the ekphrasis of dark or near-black paintings), one that will share with the reader how such a rarefied focus developed, organically, in and through my personal life; how, for instance, my recent poem on Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square is beyond any casual or highbrow interest, related with what is most intimate and precious (for the poem click here). Moreover, by writing in this way my hope is to present a hybrid piece of writing that blends academic and confessional registers.
My late wife who passed away in the summer of 2017 was a phenomenally talented photographer and artist; what makes her talent all the more noteworthy is that she was visually impaired. Born blind in her right eye, Kim developed retinitis pigmentosa in her late thirties, and before long she was left with what she described as her ‘two O-clock aperture’ in her left eye, through which she could still discern the odd colour, some contrast and movement. This limitation did not deter her though; her imagination thrived and she advanced a genre of photography which she called ‘light documents’: chance shadows or sun beams thrown on walls or other parts of the domestic space:
I think my interest in ekphrasis (writing poems in response to visual art) was born out of my role as a partner, often tasked with describing how two-dimensional things appeared, from dresses to wallpaper. Essentially, each day, I was engaged in a verbal ekphrasis, as a means of conveying to Kim what aspects of the visual world looked like, particularly patterns, shapes and colours. I was also, with melancholy, striving to reach into her darkness – or to bring her darkness into the light – evoking the Orpheus myth. Her blindness often seemed like a limitation on our closeness; and so I struggled with words to reduce the distance between us. Poetry is about this kind of struggle for me: representing how we continually fall short in our efforts to describe.
I was especially inspired though by Kim’s ability to find so much in the darkness and in shadows (her favourite book was In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki). She discovered such ethereal beauty in random glints of light, spectral colours on walls, or numinous shapes on the ceiling. As a student of Art History, she also had recollections of art works she had previously seen, and was thus able to make comparisons. Her visual acuity was also informed by learning about optics and ideas such as the Golden mean and compositional balance, in anticipation of a condition that she knew to be hereditary.
Now, carrying the burden of grief and the honour of her legacy, I feel it is important to not only acknowledge Kim’s influence upon me – a catalyst in the development of a PhD on writing with dark or near-black paintings in mind – though also to continue to write poems with a heightened awareness that the Orphic task has, if anything, intensified: to insist her vision, in spite of death, is not lost; to allow her presence to live once more in and through my writing. Her lesson for all, as I see it (and encapsulated in the premise of my thesis), is that meaning can be found in even the darkest of images; and, more pertinently, life can be affirmed even after all appears lost.
Patrick – such a moving and interesting piece of writing. This link between limited sight and the task of finding the words to convey meaning and increase intimacy is a fascinating subject. Thank very much for sharing and I am very much looking forward to presenting with you on the NAWE panel!
Thanks for sharing this, Patrick — a moving account of your reasons for engaging with a PhD. However, unlike you, I don’t consider it in the least peculiar that academics do not ordinarily imbue their researched writings with personal sensibilities and motivations. Poets and other creative writers may or may not do so (some poets, such as Wordsworth and Eliot, have recommended circumspection in this regard); however, many readers appear to be convinced that a strong personal investment on the part of a poet should enrich poetry. In this respect academic research is usually somewhat distinct from the kind of introspection/reflection that sometimes informs the practice of creative writing. Its objective is not so much to present a personal sensibility or experience as to try and persuade others by arguments. That is, in relation to a subject of investigation, academics therefore gather evidence, analyse it, formulate reasonable arguments with reference to existing formulations, and present inferences of general/collective import — and thereby contribute to an ongoing debate wherein others are making similar interventions. The overall purpose of the debate may be understood as seeking collective understanding and consensus, in a progressive or accumulative manner. In this enterprise, then, assertions of one’s personal experiences may well deter consensus and undermine collective understanding; however significant your feelings and experiences may seem to you, they may not be significant in the same way to others.
You are right, of course, that academics sometimes come to their topics with various kinds of personal investments, some quite strong. Equally, sometimes they don’t — I started my PhD because it concerned some unanswered questions in the field I was studying, and it was practical and expedient for me at the time, etc. — not because I had an experience such as yours to guide me towards it. Whatever reasons bring an academic to begin doing research on a theme, they do not necessarily leave an academically meaningful imprint on the research itself. Other academic researchers informed of the area would not examine the evidence, arguments and inferences in terms of the reasons which spurred the undertaking of the research initially.
Thanks for sharing this with us, Patrick – it’s really moving, thoughtful and considered. And you are right – sometimes we are perhaps not as forthcoming about the underpinning (sometimes very personal) motivations for our research as we should be, for all sorts of reasons. Certainly, I can think of some of my own work that has been principally motivated by a personal quest or interest that isn’t entirely transparent in the finished, published research, and would probably only be evident to someone who knows me personally. In this regard, I’m perhaps a lot less confident than you in bringing the personal to bear on the professional – for many of the reasons that Suman outlines in his comments above. Wishing you well for the on-going work on light, darkness, and ekphrasis.