By P.H. Higgins
It is a shame that long collections of poetry are not in vogue. Thin volumes have a certain charm, but poetic publishing right now tends to balk at more than a couple hundred pages, a subtle but impactful limitation upon the form. Furthermore—one cannot stress this enough—a collected volume is more than the sum of its poems! Reading one-hundred short poems together in a single collection affects the experience in an altogether different way than reading them individually in, say, journals. Similarly, a gallery of photographs is different from an album of photographs, or a single image displayed alone. The Family of Man Poems, inspired by the photo gallery of the same name, is a long read—over six hundred pages—and it is a real pleasure to read an original collection that can juxtapose so many poems in one volume.
While the poems correspond to photographs from the Family of Man gallery, one may wish to think of them as one long-form poem: an epic reflection that shifts from scene to scene, moment to moment. As many poems take a first-person perspective, the reader cannot help but feel thrust into another life, plunged into another world as—Proust-like—images unfold into new connotations and reminiscence. Poems often begin in media res, sometimes with an “And…” as the first word, tantalizingly suggestive of… who knows what? Who can be sure what came before? The reader may attempt to look for some explanation, but the writing presses on—they are full of actions, verbs, and deeds. These poems do not stand still and reading them may sweep you away.
Originally, the photographs in the Family of Man gallery—which premiered at New York’s MoMA in 1955—were laid out so that viewers could pause at the ones which intrigued them most, producing an original narrative in their mind about the interconnectedness of humanity. So, is this collection a narrative of the gallery as a whole? Is it a re-telling, a response, or something altogether different? In a way, poetry seems a more appropriate form for this fragmentary, stitched-together approach to building a narrative—poetry has long attracted a wide range of literary theorists and aesthetic critics who comment on its disruptive prowess and its opposition to enclosed structures. Yet, behind this poetic collection is something cohesive: firstly, a gallery of photographs; secondly, the human experience itself.
To read The Family of Man Poems as a commentary on the entire experience of mankind may be asking too much from a single collection. Unlike photographs, the human subjects of these poems are often just out-of-sight and unclear. Their relationships and actions more suggestive and implicit than the captured activity of a framed picture. Nevertheless, it is rare to see such a profound display of ambition and craft dedicated to such a long project. Whether or not the poems produce a “narrative of man” may depend on the reader. However, I think that—more than expressing the total interconnectedness of man—this collection is a worthy display of the power of poetry itself, our ability to find emotion and expression in strange dark marks on a blank page. Reading nearly 500 poems, all by a single author, meant to be held in a single bound volume, emphasizes the scope of poetic expression and its effects on the reader in a way that most contemporary collections cannot. Light fare, it is not, but it is rich and plentiful.