ABCs of Poetry: I is for Imagery

Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: I is for Imagery

Because human beings understand the sense behind actions so well, we tend to project feelings where there are none. We see a flower drooping its head, and it looks sad or ashamed. We feel the anger behind an old truck growling down the street.

Poets know how to utilize this connection between imagery and emotion. The best can do so with a delicate balance. A poem loaded with images that scrimps on emotion is so solid the reader can’t nudge it, can’t carry it with them. On the other hand, a poem swarming with abstraction floats away from the reader’s grasp, a ghost of what a poem could be. But even one strong image has the potential to keep a poem on the ground while pointing “toward heaven.”

Take Ellen Bass’ poem “The Thing Is,” a poem comprised of a series of abstractions:

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

What I like about this poem is the way it attempts to grasp for the perfect image, running through a list, mirroring the searching the speaker describes. It shows how action is one of the stronger forms of imagery when it comes to emotion. It’s hard to make clear the feeling of despair, but it’s easy to picture someone in that state, how they might act, which is where the last image of the hands grasping a face comes in. This is the fundamental moment that holds the poem together in the end, as if Bass surrenders to that final image, the way, according to the poem, one has to surrender to life.

Bass also makes use of an important device, that of the repeating dynamic image. In the fourth line, she brings the hands in as they try to grasp life in the form of burnt paper. By the final image, the hands return but in a more localized way that borders on synecdoche when she mentions “palms” instead. Even the action alters slightly from the figurative past tense “held” in line three, to the literal present tense “hold” in line twelve. These shifts help to emphasize the journey the speaker describes from despair to acceptance. Thanks to this dynamic, we have a living, breathing image that not only holds together a poem’s striving to make clear an elusive emotion, it does so while serving the poem thematically.

It’s interesting what happens when this dynamic isn’t fully realized. Raymond Carver, some forget, was a decent poet. I admire many of his poems for their simplicity, their terseness,  but where he struggles to develop a connective dynamic within his images. He’s often compared to Williams in the sense that the images and the emotions tend to float away from each other. The difference is Williams used sound, line, and syntax, to build the connections in more subtle ways. Carver, on the other hand, a master prose writer, flirted with the undercurrents of line and sound but never perfected his practice. So the images strung along the lines tend to serve practical purposes and can become stale. If we look at one of his more well-known poems “Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year” we witness that struggle:

October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen
I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.

In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either,
and don’t even know the places to fish?

I don’t mean to suggest Carver’s poem is without its strength in imagery. The use of the perch is specific, and Carver ties back to it with the final line, so it can symbolize the lack of connection the speaker feels with his father, and its subtle New Testament ties develop the image outward. But when I read this poem, I find myself wondering why it seems to fall short. The disconnect begins with the don’t establish emotional ties well enough to avoid explanation. Specifically lines six and seven. The denim, the year and make of the vehicle, what do these images serve to do aside from giving us a clear visual of the photograph? Because the reader can’t make the connection, Carver spends the next three lines explaining.

The biggest moment of explanation occurs in the final stanza. As I said, some images exude a certain strength, but as a whole, they don’t move toward a clear common emotion, so Carver has the speaker tell us what he’s feeling, “Father, I love you,/ yet how can I say thank you…” This moment carries a lot of heft, which is part of the reason Carver rests it justifiably on the sharpest caesura in the poem. But when the images work together well in a vignette like this, the emotion occurs with little to no need of explanation.

Robert Hayden’s impeccable poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” like Carver’s poem, is a vignette, and also like Carver’s it describes the speaker’s father and expresses feelings of love, gratefulness, and regret:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Nearly every image in the poem expands outward into layers of association. Even the sound of “splintering, breaking” can refer to both physical and emotional associations, literal and figurative.

The poem expresses emotions directly only twice, but not as a way of explaining the emotion behind an image the way Carver’s poem does. With reference to “the chronic angers of that house,” for example, the image of the “house” operates dynamically and effectively by casting the anger away from the father, using metonymy to represent the family, and evoking the common moniker of a church, an image constantly hovering below the surface.

The second comments, like Carver, on love. But unlike Carver, love in this case is given a direct image, that of the “austere and lonely offices” which strongly juxtaposes itself from the warm rooms the father cultivates. But the offices also create a lonely image that reflect the father’s love for his family that goes unappreciated. Hayden pays attention also to line placement, taking the image one step higher, so ultimately love isn’t an action performed by the speaker (as in Carver’s case), it’s an empty spare object a whole line away from the speaker, beyond his reach. This is the difference between making the image work and working the image.

The word emotion implies movement. If the reader is to be moved, the poet needs consider the dynamics of an image’s associations, its emotional subtleties. All three of these poems offer a glimpse into the emotive undercurrents imagery is capable of carrying. The real question is whether or not the poet can pay enough attention to what needs to be done in order to draw that emotion out.

Marcus Whalbring’s first book of poems appeared in 2013. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Spry, High Shelf, the
Cortland Review, Now Culture, Blood Lotus, and others. He earned his MFA from Miami University. He lives with this wife and children in Indiana where he’s a teacher.