Home Feature Articles Shifting Gears: Photography meets poetry in a pantoum

Shifting Gears: Photography meets poetry in a pantoum


Buckle your seatbelts and stow your tray tables; it’s time to shift gears and read another photo poem.

Photography + Poetry = Photopoetry

People who interweave poetry and photography are apparently creating photopoetry, an art form blending literary and visual sensibilities. The two media are beautifully complementary: poetry conjures images in the mind of the reader, whereas photography conjures images in the eye of the observer.  The more skilful the poet, the more vivid the mental image; the more skilful the photographer, the more evocative the visual image.

Step one in composing a photo poem is the selection of a subject worthy of this hybrid medium. Obviously, it should be a subject lending itself to both versification and photographic representation — perhaps nature, architecture, or landscape.

Being a nerd, I chose those virtuosi of the mechanical world: the humble but supremely versatile gears.

Top Gears

The world of gears is huge. Engineers define them as toothed mechanical transmission elements used to transmit motion and power between machine components. Operating as corresponding pairs, the teeth of one gear enmesh with those of the other.  This prevents slippage as they rotate, especially when significant power is being applied.

They are usually attached to shafts, the driving shaft supplying and the driven shaft receiving the power. Depending upon their design, gears can change the direction or rotation of the motion supplied by the driving shaft.

Gears are usually circular, providing a constant transmission ratio for both speed and torque, but non-circular versions can be used for specialized tasks. For example, linear gear racks can translate circular into linear motion.

The arrangement of gear teeth has a significant effect on their performance. Thus, spur gears employ straight-cut teeth running at ninety degrees to the plane of the gear’s circular face. Helical gears employ teeth which twist at an angle to the gear face. These are more expensive to manufacture but can handle higher loads and are quieter than spur gears.

We all enjoy the benefits of gears in daily life since they are integral to motorcars, bikes, washing machines, and lawnmowers. If you own a mechanical watch with a see-through sapphire crystal back plate, you can watch tiny gears in motion as you wind the mainspring.

As someone has said, gears truly make the modern world go round.

Pass the pantoum

I composed the poem in a traditional Malay form called a pantoum. It employs a four-line stanza, the second and fourth lines of which become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The result is a rolling, rhythmic pattern of repeated phrases. In principle, the number of stanzas is unlimited. I have used five, the final stanza repeating lines one and three from the first, in reverse order. 

The endlessly repetitive pantoum seemed an ideal literary device for describing the relentless, circular whirring of gears. I think of them as synchronized swimmers in lubricant. Written using nine syllables per line, I tried to echo the uniform, systematic meshing of cogs with cogs. As a final repetitive, grinding motif, I enforced the alliterative use of the letter G at the start of every line. I know, what a nerd.

Blending photography with verse composed in an exotic form makes for a stretching brain workout. I hope you think it was worth it.

Here we go!


Gears make the modern world go round
Gliding smoothly, cognate cogs enmeshed
Giving us a way to direct power,
Gyrating as their motion transfers torque
Gliding smoothly, cognate cogs enmeshed
Gently whirring, many-toothed machines,
Gyrating as their motion transfers torque,
Grind out their mechanical advantage
Gently whirring, many-toothed machines,
Gnawing grimly on each spiny wheel,
Grind out their mechanical advantage;
Gizmos spinning nature into work
Gnawing grimly on each spiny wheel,
Geometric partners twirl in sync;
Gizmos spinning nature into work,
Grease-encased machines of man’s design
Geometric partners twirl in sync;
Giving us a way to direct power,
Grease encased machines of man’s design
Gears that make the modern world go round

Photographs were taken with a Leica Q2 Monochrom. Background material on gears was abstracted from this superb article. Illustrations were created using DALLE-2.

Have you come across a pantoum before? Do you enjoy alliteration? Are you a nerd who loves mechanical objects? When was the last time you built something with LEGO? Let us know in the comments below. 

Read more from the author

Join our community and play an active part in the future of Macfilos: This site is run by a group of volunteers and dedicated authors around the world. It is supported by donations from readers who appreciate a calm, stress-free experience, with courteous comments and an absence of advertising or commercialisation. Why not subscribe to the thrice-weekly newsletter by joining our mailing list? Comment on this article or, even, write your own. And if you have enjoyed the ride so far, please consider making a small donation to our ever-increasing running costs.


  1. You know, for all we talk about photo gear, we seldom get to see it. So, thanks: you’ve filled a much needed gap in these discussions. 🙂 🙂

    (all puns intended, except where prohibited by law)

    Seriously, I had never heard of this verse form, and relating it to gears was quite clever!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here