Whence The Image Of The Image?
© by Ben Smith, 11/2/11
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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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