The punctum

The elusive punctum. Sounds like the frumious bandersnatch, right?

Well, not quite. Punctum is a photographic concept developed by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida, published in 1980. The punctum is established in opposition to the concept of the studium, "studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, and punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it." Yes, I took that directly from Wikipedia. Anyway, the point of the matter is pretty much as follows: studium is more about what a photographer intended to capture when he/she set out to photograph something, and punctum is about the (sometimes) unintentional detail of a photograph that draws a particular person to that image.

I went to a poetry reading a few days ago (Lisa Robertson reading at University Press Books), and all I have to say is: Thank the mighty Muses for the punctum. Otherwise I might not have survived.

Lisa Robertson's poetry was largely forgettable to me, more interesting in the techniques she chose and the places she started thinking from than in the actual finished product. Her poetry was boring to the ear, without meaning or rhythm to differentiate each word from the next. It was a shame, I thought, because her poetry was probably much more engaging when read in print, rather than out loud.

There were a few lingering lines, in particular this: "any girl who reads is already a lost girl". What an evocative line. I could think about that one for a long time... In fact, I may start thinking about it now, and report back with more interesting thoughts. One line does not a poetry reading make, though, and I was forced to come up with the punctum to satisfy my craving for entertainment.

In this case, the punctum was Lisa's pair of glasses. An innocuous thing in itself, an unassuming pair of horn-rimmed glasses, but it was made significant by the fact that the young man who introduced her was wearing an identical pair of glasses. In that instant my mind took flight. What significance, in these glasses? The two must be connected in some way - these things don't just happen, do they? Was it a code? Were they spies, identifying themselves to each other by their one commonality? Suppositions like these broke my night out of the doldrums.

There are lessons to be learned here, though I'm not sure exactly which. One, to be sure, is that some poetry (and certainly, some prose as well) is better read on the page than read aloud, and vice versa. Poetry, specifically, is not as engaging aloud when there is little about its construction (little rhythm, rhyme, etc.) to distinguish it, off the page, from prose.

Another is that the punctum is pretty cool, and bears further thought. That night's punctum was the unexpected appearance of matching pairs of glasses. The question becomes, what punctum lies just round the corner, in tomorrow?