Whence The Image Of The Image?

Copyright © by Ben Smith, 11/2/11


 Abstraction is the enemy of good poetry. Poetry should display a commitment to the ultra specificities of language . . .”—London Magazine


“. . . Poems should not be obscure or overly abstract. They should be accessible and communicative.—Lucid Rhythms



  Poetry comprises innumerable elements, each of them ready to be called upon by the poet as it serves him.  One element though is often emphasized above others: the image.  Now I would never suggest that images do not play a role in the poem; they do. But, to what extent?  I would propose that the image (the concrete image, that is) plays a much smaller, a lesser, role in the composition of the poem than has been indicated by many others. Indeed it is the wording of the images themselves as well as the words that relate to the images that give the image itself its importance.  Poetry is not a visual art in the sense that it is not painting, it is not sculpture, nor photograph; neither is it song, a thing of tactile sensation, or a scent, not to mention it not being kinesiology.

  Though the mental image can be effective, especially when skillfully juxtaposed with other such images, it relies on what is done with it, using abstract and figurative tropes, to achieve its effect.  Now, what I am really trying to express here is that the concrete image requires the less solid, the more abstract concept to fulfill its promise; the image is less without its abstract counterpart, and likewise the same might be said of the abstract element: although this may be obvious to some, it is apparently not so for others who emphasize “powerful images” over the more abstract in poetry.  Is this my vain attempt to bore the fire of its flame?  Possibly. And if I ask, is this really a controversy at all among those who know anything about poetry?  I must say no; it is simply an opportunity to show one way the well-written poem works (by giving life to its images).  By admitting as much, I do not raze my own argument, but instead bring it into an illusory dimension of abstraction, abstraction the side that shall win this war of elements. 

  Here I’ll simply impart an enemy (who believes like many that the concrete image is at the heart of poetry) whose hypothetical argument I wish to expunge.  I shall show that the strangely oft-maligned nebulous manifestations of poetry along with the figurative tropes in general will trump the concrete.  Before the carping begins, let me begin with examples.  To illustrate my point I’ll first use the work of a poet known for his use of the image, Georg Trakl. I hope that it proves no problem that I reference the translations of a German poet, this one translated by Alexander Stillmark.



            Bluish shadows.  O you dark eyes

            Which gaze long upon me gliding by.

            Sounds of a guitar gently accompany autumn

            In the garden, dissolved in brown fluids.

            Death’s grave darkling hour is prepared

            By nymphen hands: decaying lips

            Suck at red breasts and into black fluids

            The sun-youth’s damp locks glide.

  Here we have “bluish shadows,” a concrete image, which is possibly related to “dark eyes” which “gaze,” the activity of the eyes, upon him “gliding by,” a possible reference to a flying animal, or to himself moving swiftly or flying.  Note that “gliding” already takes us into an abstract realm because we know not what is gliding, just “me.”  Next, the “sounds of a guitar” (a concrete idea by itself) “accompany autumn,” this a more or less enigmatic ponder.  Yet the sounds are “dissolved into brown fluids,” a strange concept far from solid.  “Death’s grave darkling hour,” a complete abstraction, “is prepared/By nymphen hands,” a more hardened concept and mythological image. 

  The next set of words is composed completely of image: “decaying lips . . .”  The ending, though image, “the sun-youth’s damp locks” and “black fluids,”  involves once again gliding, this time the locks gliding.  You can see already that even in the work of one who relies heavily on image, the less material concept still predominates; without these higher ideas, the poem ultimately lacks the interest that it after all stirs.  Here the devil’s right hand shows his: The work is primarily composed of concrete elements; so how come you to your conclusion?  This is a work of image.  Well say I, what would this poem be without the enigmatic accompaniment of autumn and the mysteriously twice-termed uses of gliding and fluids? Even if the latter bears some weight of image, it is not so concrete.

  Next, we approach a poet known to have said or written in more than one place, “Not ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams. Yes, Williams held the image at a premium.  We’ll see that in his poem he apparently does use even less abstractions than Trakl, but that these parts of speech play a prominent role nonetheless.

            Willow Poem


            It is a willow when summer is over,

            a willow by the river

            from which no leaf has fallen nor

            bitten by the sun

            turned orange or crimson.

            The leaves cling and grow paler,

            swing and grow paler

            over the swirling waters of the river

            as if loath to let go,

            they are so cool, so drunk with

            the swirl of the wind and of the river—

            oblivious to winter,

            the last to let go and fall

            into the water and on the ground.

  A simple analysis of the abstract elements of this poem shows that a grouping of images alone is not enough to compose a worthwhile work.  The leaf is not “bitten by the sun” turning it “orange or crimson;” bitten becomes a personification of the sun.  “The leaves cling” could be interpreted as a subtle use of personification.  And this, “as if loath to let go,” yes definitely personification.  They are “drunk,” leaves personified, and they are “oblivious,” again the same tool out of the poet’s box.  And then they “let go.” 

  Here we see personification of the leaves dominates the poem, and personification of course is an abstract use of language, one thing signifying another (e.g. the leaves are not actually “loath to let go,” “drunk,’ or “oblivious to winter”).  Does Satan have something to say of this?  Perhaps, what would be of this poem without the personification throughout?  I’ll just say, not much, some leaves, a river, some wind and winter.  This is a world peopled by leaves; that’s what renders this world special.  The fact that the doctor only uses one poetic part of speech lends a very unusual unity to this poem, even symmetry.  And yes the ideas are in his things, but not without the use of poetic technique, which is to say, abstraction or the figurative trope.

  And now, Robert Frost, who also tends to like the literal side of literature.

            To the Thawing Wind


            Come with rain, O loud Southwester!

            Bring the singer, bring the nester;

            Give the buried flower a dream;

            Make the settled snow-bank steam;

            Find the brown beneath the white;

            But whate’er you do tonight,

            Bathe my window, make it flow,

            Melt it as the ice will go;

            Melt the glass and leave the sticks

            Like a hermit’s crucifix;

            Burst into my narrow stall;

            Swing the picture on the wall;

            Run the rattling pages o’er;

            Scatter poems on the floor;

            Turn the poet out of door.

  This entire poem hinges on the first figurative trope, the “Southwester,” a sort of god-like personification of nature, the wind in particular. The wind mysteriously brings the singer and the nester, possibly the sound of wind and the nesting birds, obviously abstract ideas.  And a “dream” is given to the “buried flower,” a speculative notion.  “Find the brown beneath the white,” the ground or dirt beneath the snow, metonymy of color; one concrete collection of images, colors, represents two other concrete things: here the concrete meets the abstract in a figurative trope, as if to prove the two are not so separate.  Make the window flow; an abstract way of saying make the ice on the window melt.  “Melt the glass:” here is a concept completely theoretical. 

  Next, a religious reference and the idea of the wind entering the writer’s abode. “Rattling” could have multiple meanings, especially considering that wind through the window may make a rattling noise; also the this could mean that the pages were written in a brisk or lively fashion or contain brisk, lively writing, or that the pages of poetry are blown around and are therefore upset and confused. Finally, “out of door,” meaning, out of his home, again more abstract than concrete.  Anything else?  The god-like personification which is the heart of the poem, the metonymy of the brown and the white; need we say more of the weight that abstraction holds in this poem?

  Finally, we have a poet who does not make any claims of representing the literal, a poet who in fact regularly deals in enigma, that most noumenal of phenomena. Dear reader, a treat for lovers of poetry, the magic of Wallace Stevens.

            United Dames of America


            There are not leaves enough to cover the face

            It wears.  This is the way the orator spoke:

            “The mass is nothing.  The number of men in a mass

            Of men is nothing.  The mass is no greater than


            The singular man of the mass.  Masses produce

            Each one its paradigm.”  There are not leaves

            Enough to hide away the face of the man

            Of this dead mass and that.  The wind might fill


            With faces as with leaves, be gusty with mouths,

            And with mouths crying and crying day by day.

            Could all these be ourselves, sounding ourselves,

            Our faces circling round a central face


            And then nowhere again, away and away?

            Yet one face keeps returning (never the one),

            The face of the man of the mass, never the face

            That hermit on reef sable would have seen,


            Never the naked politician taught

            By the wise.  There are not leaves enough to crown,

            To cover, to crown, to cover—let it go—

            The actor that will at last declaim our end.

  What to say of this poem?  Notice the wind and the leaves of our previous two poems; also the hermit.  But what to say?  The abstract abounds.  Is anything literal in this work?  Perhaps the orator, the leaves, the men and the man of the mass, the wind, the faces, the mouths, the hermit, the politician, and the actor.  But how are these seemingly concrete elements, images, used?  In the abstract.  We begin with the ideatum of the leaves covering the face.  The orator’s rhetoric, about the mass, the men, the man, and the paradigm are to say the least recondite.  Now the face is introduced, and we have the man and the dead mass; next, the indistinct wind filling “faces as with leaves,” the ungraspable “gusty with mouths” crying “day by day.”  Then the clear as mud “Could all this be ourselves, sounding ourselves?” The faces circling the central face, then going “nowhere again, away and away,” an unplain pondering obscure.  And one face returns, the face of the man of the mass?  Here on, we are told what the face is not, then the abrupt ending, “the actort who will at last declaim our end,” for whom there not enough leaves to crown or cover—can we say an indeterminate ending? 

  Here we have a sense of finale without the clarity of any ultimate understanding.  And the entire poem adds up in its vague traces to enigma.  Here is a poem that begins with the promise of going some place, but which, in the end, goes “some place.  Here is a poem supremely all-confident in its expression and direction, though what it expresses and what its direction? . . .  Through a final examination, we see the poet offers no finite meaning.  Indeed one can almost understand this poem in a manner estranged from the human.  And why, in addition to being the most abstract, is this the best poem of the bunch?  Anyone? Anyone? . . .

  Yes, a symbiosis exists between the concrete image and the more nebulous ideas and figures of speech.  We know the poetry 101 connection between the concrete and the general or abstract, but what is more, the abstract and figurative elements are that which make the poem a poem.  All of the imagery you can muster will not add up to a good poem; the abstract and the poetic parts of speech will either break you or comprise a good work.  We could outline image after image, preen them with pomp, engage them with longiloquent chaff, but concrete images in the hundreds can’t equal one well-turned trope of the speculative or figurative.  This is to say the metaphysical (the abstract and figurative language) rules over its worldly cousin (the concrete); the abstract needn’t even stand on the terra firma of the solid trope.  In our examples, enigma, personification, metonymy, the figurative and abstract trope in general give life to what would otherwise be plain or banal.  The image itself need not even be concrete to perform its function as image; it can be abstract.  The panoply of the skilled poet includes so much outside the real realm of the concrete that is absurd to emphasize this one element; O to traduce the image of the image from its appropriated place of prominence in poetry.  Looks like “the enemy of good poetry,” as London Magazine called abstraction, is actually what makes for good poetry.


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