A Photograph Should not Mean But Be

Ars Poetica


A poem should be palpable and mute   

As a globed fruit,


As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless   

As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time   

As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,   

Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time   

As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean   

But be.

“Ars Poetica” is one of my favorite poems. I know, it’s a twentieth century poem by an American poet, and I’m all about the Nineteenth Century British poets. But still, it’s one of my favorite poems because it is so full of visual imagery. Of course, MacLeish is talking about the written word and the power of the word to create word pictures in our heads. He’s also talking about the tendency to overanalyze a poem and beat it to death teasing out the deeper meanings.

Sometimes, we do the same thing to photographs. We overanalyze and try to find deeper meanings when the meaning is right there in the image. I love the image in the last stanza: “For all the history of grief/An empty doorway and a maple leaf.” Can you picture a photograph of an open doorway in an old house, weathered wood siding around it, filled with leaves that have fallen from nearby trees? There is something sad about a house that is no longer a home.

I am thinking about my own photographs today and the stories that they tell the viewer. Are my images illustrations of the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”?


Contemplative photography practices have caused me to slow down before pressing the shutter, and sometimes, but perhaps not often enough, I ask myself about the story that I want the image to tell. Do I need words to express the story, or will the photograph tell the story by itself?

I think the image of the butterfly above is one of those images, the torn wings, pieces missing—this butterfly has had a hard life. It is juxtaposed with the fresher butterfly. There is a sadness to this image. This butterfly will not last long. But I don’t need the words to tell that story.

I’m thinking that Wednesday may become a “Wordless Wednesday” post. Check on my Telling Stories page on Facebook or the Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart page on Facebook for some Wordless Wednesday inspiration.

By Olivia Fulmer

I am the OliviaIrene of OliviaIrene Photography. I am a photographer, a teacher, a story teller. I use this space to tell stories of life, family, and faith through words and images. I'd love to share your stories as well. Join me in this journey.

I love conversation, the close, intimate kind amongst friends. Won't you join me? I look forward to a good coze.

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