“- Say it, no ideas, but in things…” – William Carlos Williams, Paterson
Imaginative engagement of what might, through other methods of investigation, be documented… That is our aim…. Working on a longitudinal (10 year), ethnographic study of community music and mental health some years back, we took inspiration from the work and writings of the American doctor-poet, William Carlos Williams. Williams described how, as a doctor on the daily house-call round, he sought to comprehend the situations of his patients and, “com[e] up with my medical pictures in my mind, like those artists do with their head and heart using the easel, and like photographers do in the same way with their cameras. …trying to figure things out, get the right picture, as do artists, painting or photographing, trying to get their kind of ‘right picture’.” We used this quote as the epigraph to the one of the books associated with our project.
For Williams (as for Goethe, father of ‘delicate empiricism’), the ‘science’ of doctoring was by no means separate from the ‘art’ of writing a poem. What’s in, or out, of a frame, what kind of frame (and therefore claim) makes (or ‘figures out’) experience. (NB the word poet comes from the Greek poiein, or ‘to make’.) For us, this making contributes to the more general project of making sense of things in the research field, albeit for slightly different reasons and we’ve listed those reasons here:
Tia’s poems deal with non-fictional material – the imagined problems, and solutions (?), associated with living ‘in a care facility’. Her poems typically begin with real-life (field) events but then shift into the realm of fiction. Here, after encountering a situation in real life, she tries to imagine a further situation involving a devoted couple who are physically separate due to the exigencies of their conditions and care needs. The poem was concerned with what are sometimes described as ‘coping strategies’:
We are two of the mountains
There’s a valley between our two, twin
beds. We’re far apart up here,
camping past the foothills.
Our tents are staked.
I wave to you. You signal back
with a mirror. Sunlight plays on the eastern wall.
Short, short, short, short. Short. Short, long, short,
short. Short, long, long, short.
So we occupy ourselves
being together these many years.
Gary’s poems, by contrast, recall things that happened, sometimes verbatim, and his reactions, in the scenes of care where he works. They come, as he once said, ‘tumbling’ out, composed on his phone after a work session in care facility:
Today there’s only
the rough sound of your
laboured breath left.
A promise of song at the beginning of life,
your lungs work now only to complete
these final beats
of the body’s time.
Keeping vigil in this room
are the icons of your life:
an oil painting of the famous young composer,
a print of two stylised Japanese carp,
two bronze Buddhas –
staying with you as you did them.
On the bookshelf the record
of your scholar’s devotion;
close probings of music and spirit.
But now these images and voices recede,
Leaving your own life’s melody
longing to cadence.
As a research team, we then use these poems to pursue more explicit, ‘research’ questions – for example we use them in interviews with each other to tease out what might be our otherwise-tacit assumptions about people, situation, and place (e.g., ‘what made you think that couple actually wanted to be physically closer?’ or ‘how did you come to think that that person was longing for “cadence”?’). We think poems work well for this purpose because of the way they draw attention to details, often one ‘grain’ at a time. Seeing the world in these grains (and regardless of whether a poem is ‘good’), lingering because this literary format allows for, requires, lingering, permits metonymy, letting the ‘grains’ stand in for wider patterns and matters in the ‘field’ – and letting us test the robustness of these metonymic relationships. So, the poem becomes a lens or way of refracting and magnifying scene, place, history and relationship. And it runs in contrast to our field notes.
In other words, writing a poem is a methodological strategy not a form of ‘outreach’. We are not using poems to communicate our research findings to others, nor to encourage public engagement with our findings. Rather, poetry offers us a springboard for further questioning – questioning the poem in terms of the ‘history’ of how it took shape and questioning whether and how the poetic ‘angle’ does or doesn’t square with what audio-recordings, photos, videos, field notes, or interview transcripts might reveal. This valuing of multiple modes of representation resonates in turn with what we’ve learned about writing and analysis from ‘master’ ethnographers such as Paul Atkinson(2019; 2012). Atkinson describes how all science writing is, inevitably, a literary endeavour, has a poetics. Every literary foray, every format will package/repackage, arrange, highlight, translate, traduce, constitute, and constrain – that’s the social contract we make with words.
And so, we end with the questions we hope to pursue over the next two years (and more) about the relationship between poetic image and research idea. What emerges when we ‘tell’ about the research scene in small, ‘poetic’ bundles of words? How might pursuing this question shine a light on some of the border territories between fiction and non-fiction which Bruno Latour once called, ‘Scienti-fiction’? We are great believers in the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. But we also believe, along with philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, in the power of, ‘faint, suggestive imagery’ (Murdoch 2000: 332), that fiction can distil truth and so bring us closer to the realities of lived experience in ways that, as Murdoch says, ‘are often so much less definite than pictures’ (ibid). And so, we will continue to think about how to widen the range of documentary methods in the pursuit of making research more complete, or more whole.
Atkinson, Paul (2019). Writing Ethnographically. London: Sage.
Atkinson Paul (2012 ). The Ethnographic Imagination: Textual Constructions of Reality. New York: Routledge.
Murdoch, Iris (2000 ). The Nice and the Good. London: Vintage Classics.