In the Beginning Is the Image

At this point in the semester–as we begin to write our own poems and share them–I like to emphasize the importance of images to our writing of poems.  It seems to me that we have three things to give to readers of poems.  You could probably come up with more, but let’s start here:  images, sound, and meaning.  I’ll start at the end.  We can give the reader a great theme or meaning or thought and the reader will overlook a poem’s boring or dull moments.  We can give the reader a beautiful poem or striking sounding poem, and he will overlook the fact that he can’t understand it or figure out what happens.  Or we can give the reader something to look at, to see, and perhaps to remember. If the images are striking enough, the reader might forgive you even if the poem is nonsense.

Think about your comments you might make about a poem you enjoyed in class: 1.  Some line that was meaningful, or 2) some line that stuck you musically, or 3) some image that moved you.

This is where I will push you in the next few weeks, and you will get sick of hearing me say it:  Images!  Give me (and the other readers) something to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.  Concrete words:  hands, cattails, fence, river, car, etc.

With this I will say, until you are tired of me saying it–avoid abstract words. Avoid:  these words:  love, anger, fear, greed, hate, democracy, religion, etc, etc.  Instead, say, “the jewely box opened,” “the rock burst through the window”  “like guns firing at midnight.”

This is my theory.  Tuning forks.  Do you know how you can hit a tuning fork, then place it next to a guitar string and the string tuned to that note will vibrate.  Poems are like tuning forks.  When you read your poem aloud, the emotion in it travels to the reader, and something in the reader vibrates.  So the question is:  what makes you or the reader vibrate?  Most of the time it is images.  I don’t vibrate with “Love,” the word.  However, I do vibrate with memories of love, when I see the image of two old people with smiles on their faces and sitting on a bench holding hands .  When a writer says “they love each other,”  I understand but I don’t feel anything.  When a writer says, “her wrinkled hand lay in his like an egg in a nest,” I might feel warm inside.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”  We have heard it so often.  What is the most popular art form in the world?  Movies.  Mostly movies are a collection of images.

In early decades of the twentieth century, a group of American poets (some living in London at the time) began to advocate for the Image in poetry.  Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams began a revolution in poetry that they called Imagism.  Archibald McLeish wrote “Ars Poetica” proclaiming the power of the image.  T.S. Eliot, coming from a slightly different angle wrote about the “objective correlative.”   I don’t think it is surprising that at the same time the camera and the movie camera were starting to exert a great influence in art.

One can find a lot of theory about the image.  Ezra Pound’s defined the  image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In addition he formulated some rules about Imagist poetry.   His words follow:

I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

But basically I think he is saying–don’t get all “poetical” and fancy talking; don’t try to sound smarter than you are; just say what you see and let your words do your talking for you.  The image will tell your reader everything he or she needs.

In the late 50s and 60s there was concept called the “deep image.”  These images tend to have long histories, going back into myth and fairy tales.  If you want to write about “kings,” This is what you might be moved by. It is where the power of land, and sun and moon come from.  It is also probably where a poem about wine and seeds comes from.  I think it is where a lot of the power of Mary Oliver’s work comes from.  The idea of the deep image is connected to the work of Carl Jung and the collective unconscious.  This is the dream world of storms and cages and wild animals and flying.  It’s the fence in the Frost. Or his two paths diverging. These are just such power images for us humans, we can’t shake them.  Rivers, ponds, trails, roads, sun, shade, rain, darkness and light, kitchens, animals, walls.  Think of all the movies in which a couple argues at night and it is raining.  Lord of the Rings is built upon these images.

So as you write your poems:  Write what you see, not what you think.  If you tell us what you see, we will know what you think, but more we will feel what you feel.   If you tell us what you think, we might know what you think, but we probably won’t feel it.  Again, if you say, “I am walking through the city and I am sad”  I will understand that.  But if you write:  “my shadow dissolves in the shadow of the bank”  I will see it, maybe feel it, and also know that you are in a city and sad.

Writing Assignment: Pick a landscape that you are familiar with. It could be in nature or in a city or suburb. Describe it so that your read feels what you feel while you are/were there.


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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.