When has literature ever existed in a void? By nature, it’s meant to be observed - to be consumed, to be seen, to be reacted to. Comprehending it validates its existence. Furthermore, we have a symbiotic relationship with it - when we observe, we bring information into ourselves and are open to its influence over the ways we think and feel. We connect literary images to mental ones and form associations between them. When we hear an author’s voice emerge, we begin to see them as other people and try to come to an understanding of their intent. Texts connect with our minds like unbreakable electric currents - going where they intend to go, going where we let them.
Carol Ann Duffy’s “War Photographer” is an uncomfortable work. Its central idea: the lonely total disconnect between the horrors of war and the simple comfort of peace. Duffy’s images of gore and bloodshed (“all flesh is grass,” “to fields that don’t explode beneath the feet”) are contrasted with the heavy dullness of England and English citizens (“The reader’s eyes prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers”). Not once does Duffy explicitly condemn war - the shock and bluntness of its reality are far better at jolting the mind than any hackneyed musing. Why spoonfeed the reader what they should believe when they can see it in all its depth for themselves?
Extra images also add subtle connotations to each scene. “The only light is red and softly glows,/as though this were a church and he/a priest preparing to intone a Mass.” Parts of the Mass are sombre celebrations - they recall the moments of Christ’s brutal death for the salvation of mankind, which is not all that different from what the photographer is doing (sans salvation). However, the red light adds a twisted, corrupt feeling to the atmosphere. Red is the color of blood and senseless violence. The reader, whether consciously or not, is meant to pick up on this feeling of unease and “wrongness” - as a dim, red-lit room and the image of the Mass are not very comfortable when put together at all.
“War Photographer” does not just exist to be interpreted by its readers, however. It is meant to make them question themselves. We see all of the images in the poem regularly through the detached media of history books, the news, and TV, but we are distracted from fully comprehending them by the speed at which they are introduced and removed. We pretend to be affected in the convenience of our secure homes, not knowing how truly destructive they are up close. The final line has the photographer surveying his peaceful home (under the weight of all of the things he has endured), while the people below continue to live in blissful ignorance. If that doesn’t make most readers feel personally attacked, I don’t know what will.