When asked what inspired her to write Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Intimate Histories of Social Upheavals, Saidiya Hartman said that it was a photograph that “haunted” her. She cited Roland Barthes’s concept of “punctum,” from Camera Lucida, or the subjective element of a photograph that “pricks” or “wounds” the viewer. The other element, “studium,” is the historical or cultural context of the photograph.

I happened to be sitting next to the poet Kate Sontag during Hartman’s presentation and because I had just completed her course, “What Makes a Poem,” I thought about how the same concept would apply to poetry. In discussing what makes a poem we spent much of our time on “studium,” or the various elements that scholars, critics and poets agree define poetry. But when it came time for each of us to select a poem, it was the subjective that influenced our choices. Something in the poem reached out to us, pierced us in a way it might not have affected other readers.  “Punctum” is what makes us re-read a poem, go back to it, dwell on its sounds and images. It may prick us because of an experience in our own life that opens us to its language and images at that moment. One week I picked “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams.

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet and so cold


What starts out as a mundane note of apology ends as an unapologetic sensual experience that made me yearn for summer and the sensation of fruit juices dripping down my chin. I remembered being upset with my children for eating leftovers I had planned to use for dinner and how they apologized but weren’t really sorry.

One week a classmate complained that the poems we were reading weren’t “beautiful.”  And while we could tease out a definition of rhyme and rhythm that he meant by beauty, I think it was ultimately that nothing in the poems pierced him.

Barbara Viniar1 Comment