The Deep Image, Concerning “The Light Through the Peaks”

There were a group of poets in the last fifties that were concerned with what they called the “deep image.”   Their ideas grew from the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, whose work was still relatively new. The proposition is that there are images—pictures of things put into words—that are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Freud approaches these images through dream analysis.   Jung approached them through what he called the collective unconscious. Nowadays, in places like Austin, we are very familiar with these concepts. Jung focused on archetypes, the base, foundational concepts of energy and behavior that are often found in myth. Think of things like a flood, a desert, a king, a ring, a virgin, a sword, a warrior. The deep images are a bit more primal than other images, like say, a steering wheel, a computer, or an accountant.

Having said that, I can see how each of those three can be treated as a deep image. So another part of the idea of the deep image is how the image is treated. The deep image takes on a significance beyond the image of the thing itself, and becomes, not symbolic, but representative of larger (deeper) ideas and energies. For instance, “the steering wheel” can make us think of all the guidance devices that we use in our lives—compasses, maps, rudders, etc. And “the accountant” can represent all those people who keep tabs and lists, who keep balance sheets, who look at debts and assets. In the late eighties and early nineties, a group of people concerned with recovery used the phrase “your inner child.”   By this they meant that inside each of us, in our ego, we have a lot of personalities. One of those is the child. The image of a child can be a deep image. It can become representative of a complex system of ideas.   There is a part of us that always is innocent or yearns for innocence, who is needy or runs from being needy, who cannot take care of itself, who wants to cry when its feelings get hurt, who likes to play and “waste time.”

To see an difference in image and deep image compare the two lines below:

“The child holds the stuffed giraffe.”

“The child runs into the woods alone.”

By themselves, it seems to me that the second moves more into the territory of deep image because it hints at all the fears we have about innocence and evil, safety and danger. We have a store of cultural stories from fairy tales to ET that surround such an image. The first sentence seems to me more simple. However, I can see that sentence in poem about white colonialism of Africa.

So the second half of the idea of the deep image is how the reader responds. The deep image provokes in the reader a chain of emotional responses that have been conditioned by cultural archetypes or, if you like, the collective unconscious. American movies are very conscious of some of these images—rain and storms during emotional upheavals, streets with no traffic, night, the setting sun. One reason that movies like “Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix,” and “Star Wars’ are so popular is that the public doesn’t have to be taught how to understand them. The deep image poets were conscious of trying to find a short cut to heart of the reader. The reader responds to the poem not so much by analyzing the poem as by feeling the poem. [It is important to note that the deep poetry movement began partially in response to the more cerebral poetry of the 20s to 50s. It is also important to point out that deep image poetry can move into the territory of surrealism—but more on that at another time.]

I think, therefore, that “The Light through the Peaks” is a deep image poem. I was very conscious of wanting to write a poem that turned the basic gender images upside down. (the sun begin female and the moon male; water being male and mountains being female) I keep seeing an image of a ship burning on an ocean and I wanted that image to be about my mother. Well, that did not happen. But the poem did get at the basic idea—that mothers often don’t love their children enough. I am speaking, of course, from a male perspective, and as someone who once was a child. This is not intended as a statement about all women or all mothers. But sometimes children do not get enough love from their mothers, and those children then have trouble in adult life.   The answer for me is that we have to let it go—to stop wishing for love that will not come, to feel the pain and to move on=”The dark moon follows her own course. Turn the other way.”

I had been thinking about writing this poem for at least a month and had nothing but a few false starts with lines that I thought were pretty empty. The images in the first section came to me as I went to sleep—the flash in my father’s arms, the buckets and well.   I got up at that moment and wrote them down. Then for the next long section, I remembered stories from men I had talked to about their lives as children and about their lives as fathers. I could tell you the man’s name who rode with his suicidal mother and the father whose children did not respect him, but I certainly would not betray their trust. In my mind, these men are great men (though they are just normal citizens of Austin) who are admitting that they are sad and hurt and trying to turn that pain into love. They do not want to start wars or pick fights or be cruel to women.

The last section was based, somewhat, on the original conception of the ship on fire in the ocean, but the image of the ship disappeared and only “the blazing sea” was left.

Poetry Lecture Assignment: Begin writing a poem using images from a dream. Don’t say, “I had a dream that . . .” Just use the images of the dream as if they were images from your everyday life.   With non dream images, you can say, “The flowers lay on the table.” From a dream image, you can say, “The flowers ate the table.” Then follow the ideas that come to you with these images.

Poetry Lecture Assignment: Think about the images from movies that move you the most. Then generalize from that image. For instance, I am always moved in “The Field of Dreams, when the baseball player steps out of the field knowing that he will not fulfill his dream. This image is about sacrifice of oneself through love of others. So I search my mind for a similar image and incident could write, “When he carried his tool box from the house, did he listen for the door to slam?”   Or maybe think about the horror films you know: “A man holds a knife in the closet.”