Poetry Porch: Prose


Poem and Image 

by John Hildebidle

             In high school I was confidently told that a poem was an arrangement of words that had at its core an image. Poems were customarily allowed only one image, and it was the job of the poet to define and manipulate that image in the cleverest fashion imaginable. Poems, in short, were more or less images with fins and chrome. This was the Fifties, so fins and chrome were compliments.
             It wasn’t hard to find poems that fit the definition pretty well. This paradigm was in fact one of those dangerous errors that is partly true, and therefore partly provable. Fortunately, its usefulness wears away quickly, once you escape from the anthology, into the byways of Yeats or Wallace Stevens or even Shakespeare’s sonnets, which have a nasty way of piling image on top of image, of complicating verbal pictures with sound patterns and tactile images and Lord knows what all else.
             It finally dawned on me, one day (I won’t say how old I was; I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to wise up) that poems were insidious little things that took as their work the complete unsettlement of the universe, the challenging of all the consoling presumptions you’d tinkered together over the years. Poems are, often in the quietest way possible (they’ve figured out, you’re a more likely sucker if you’re half asleep) complete revisions of the way you think. They have, at their disposal, a whole range of tricks, honed to a fine complexity over the centuries. But mostly they work with only two meager tools: language and imagery.
             The problem with language is that it’s so shopworn, used by everyone from Homer to children singing nursery-rhymes. Still it has one advantage: it’s always multiple. Unlike numbers, for instance, any word worth its salt (or, more to the point, worth its poem) means four or a dozen things. The poem’s work is to try to unleash all of those meanings at once. Which is why poems are bad things to read when you’re trying to relax yourself to sleep, and impossible things to read fast: they demand that you linger over almost every word, considering the possibilities the way chess champions are supposed to be able to do.
             But language (along with its subsidiary pleasures, like sound and rhythm) is really just the raw material of the poem. What makes it a poem (as opposed, say, to a short op-ed piece) is the image. William Carlos Williams said once that

                                         It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                  yet men die miserably every day
                                         for lack
of what is found there. 
Which is inescapably true only if you understand that the “news” a poem brings to its attentive reader is the image. As Williams (who was a working doctor in the grim and disease-ridden world of the immigrant slums of northern New Jersey) knew full well, “news” in this case does not mean what you find on the front page of the Boston Globe.
             To the poet, the imageobserved or imagined, or when things are working well, both at onceis the germ. To the reader, the image is something else. In fact, that’s part of the heart of the matter: the image is something else, something unexpected, something unfamiliar, and maybe even (when the poem tackles one of those nagging Big Questions, like death or love or the nature of the universe) something unpleasant. All the poem wants you to do, after all, is look at everythingevery darned single thingin a new way. And the image is the lens it asksno, demands that you look through (and entices you to look through, too, of course). Williams is a master of this; one of his poems demands that you look scrupulously, and in the end lovingly, at a brown paper bag being blown down a city street. Every poet has his or her favorite pallet of imagery; it’s one of the things that makes for a unique poetic “style” or “voice.”
             But it may be with images that there are really only two kinds, the useful and the ineffective. No, not useful; necessary, the ones that nag and nag at your mind, as opposed to the ones you can’t even remember, ten minutes laterthe ones that change the world and the ones that just take up space. Read enough poetry and the images will stay, forming your vision. On a bright December day you will not be able to keep from remembering that 
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes
                 (Emily Dickinson) 
A month or so earlier, fighting like mad to avoid thinking of age and mortality, still there will come creeping into your mind the thought that
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold.
                  (William Shakespeare) 
And once you’ve made it again to the grey days of earliest March, you’ll look out the car window at some unprepossessing field full of the 
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy 
stuff of bushes and small trees 
                   (William Carlos Williams) 
and realize that, if you could only look hard and carefully enough you’d be able to see “the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf” as “Spring and All” triumphs again. It’s a kind of joyous madness, really, an addiction. But, gloriously enough, it’s perfectly legal, and low-calorie, and guaranteed one hundred percent cholesterol free. The best bargain going, when you come right down to it.
             I hope I haven’t seemed to trivialize things into a sort of cognitive game-playing. I think of poetry as something much more revivifying and vital than that, something more like conceptual aerobics. The American poet A. R. Ammons once remarked (in a long poem, remarkably enough, about a garbage dump) that “to pay attention is to behold the wonder.” Diane Ackerman has aligned poetry with its supposed arch-enemy, science, by saying that “both science and art have the habit of waking us up, turning on the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention!” Which is no more and no less than an alternative version of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s insistence that “no one sees a flower reallyit is so small, and to see takes time like having a friend.” Or, to shift back away from the visual to the verbal arts, consider Denise Levertov’s lines:
The world is
not with us enough.
O taste and see
Poetry has something fundamental to do with this work of seeing; a computer-scientist of my acquaintance (and a beginning poet, as well) insists that “the job of the poet is to see around the corners, through the darkness and to find the simple elegance of the human situation.” A large enterprise, to be sure.
             I have tried to argue that poems intend to revise our way of seeing the world; but I would not want to end with the cliche that poems are points of confusion. In fact, I would argue that, by offering us surprising images of a world we may well think we know to the point of boredom, they do not so much unsettle as re-organize. One variety of image is metaphor, and the contemporary essayist Chris Arthur quietly offers this prescription: 
Metaphors are the bones of language which give it the strength to carry so much flesh of meaning . . . . Without the ability to compare that they afford, how could we withstand the endless hurricane of things, of happenings, which time ceaselessly bombards us with? 
So there’s an additional reason for dabbling in this strange uncontrolled substance called poetry. In the short term, it may give you a headache, but in the longer term, it will offer a powerful and even consoling revision of the nature of your cognitive life. 

Copyright © 2001 by John Hildebidle.