A teacher I had in high school said once, “Images are a dime a dozen. I’m tired of them.” A professor in college warned, “Don’t let metaphors become pets.” Some years ago, a student told me, “I don’t want to look at pictures when I’m reading a poem.” The still predominant scenic mode, to use Charles Altieri’s term, is so heavily dependent on imagery and visual description that it’s become completely rote. If I’ve painted a verbal picture, I’ve written a poem. It sometimes seems that anyone can come up with a string of images. It’s the structure that’s hard to produce, some reason that these particular images appear together in this particular order or constellation. Of course, it’s sadly impressive how many writers can’t even come up with disconnected images of any precision or impact. But while I’m critical of the scenic mode, I’m quite wedded to images, and to the specificity and groundedness images can provide. I don’t like poems to float off into the ether, and imagery can provide ballast, a route from here to there, wherever “there” may be for any given poem. Vivid, striking images make a strong impression on me, and I strive for them in my own work as part of the sensuous experience of the poem. All good poems, of whatever mode or style, have in common specificity and particularity. In contemporary American poetry, that specificity is primarily imagistic.
What we mean when we talk about images in poetry are mental images. A mental image can be defined as “the connecting link between experience (object) and knowledge (subject). An image [is] the reproduction in the mind of a sensation produced in perception….But of course the mind may also produce images when not receiving direct perceptions,” as in remembering past events or objects no longer present, in dreams, or in reading, where words “may refer either to experiences which could produce physical perceptions were the reader actually to have those experiences, or to the sense-impressions themselves” (“Imagery,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics 559, 560). While the words “image” and “imagery” have been used in many and various senses in literary criticism, it is in this basic sense that I use them here.
In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound writes of three ways that language can be charged with meaning, which he calls phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia. He defines phanopoeia as “throwing the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination,” much like projecting an image onto a screen (63). The reader’s imagination is presumably the screen which passively accepts this image. (This is a problematic view of the reading process, discounting the reader’s active role in producing the text, but I will leave that discussion for a later time.) Pound emphasizes that phanopoeia includes not just the fixed, still image but the moving image, that is, “praxis or action” (52). Most imagery in contemporary American poetry, as in Imagism, is of the fixed, still variety. (For Pound, at least for a time, vorticism was the solution to this problem of stasis.) Melopoeia induces “emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech” (63). Pound describes, in turn, three kinds of melopoeia, “verse made to sing; to chant or intone; and to speak” (61), and recommends the first. Louis Zukofsky followed this line of thinking with his diagram of poetry as “Upper limit music, lower limit speech.” Pound’s definition of logopoeia is the most problematic of the three. Logopoeia induces “both of the effects by stimulating the associations (intellectual or emotional) that have remained in the reader’s consciousness in relation to the actual words or word groups employed” (63). It’s unclear to me what the two effects are meant to be. It seems that they are visual imagery and emotional associations, but since the effects are induced by the stimulation of intellectual or emotional effects, that doesn’t seem possible, unless Pound is saying that emotional associations are induced by the stimulation of emotional associations, which is completely circular.
In the interest of clarity and at the risk of distortion, I define phanopoeia as the deployment of imagery to produce an effect upon the reader; melopoeia as the use of the range of verbal music toward this aim; and logopoeia as a second-order technique, using ideas, connotations, and intellectual and emotional associations to produce an effect in the reader. In Stevens’s terms, logopoeia may be referred to as the poetry of the ideas, as distinct from the poetry of the words (melopoeia) or, to add a category Stevens does not write of, the poetry of the images (phanopoeia).
Not all imagery is visual. Norman Friedman’s New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entry on “Imagery” lists a whole panoply of kinds of mental imagery: “visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch, then temperature, texture), organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion), and kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement)” (560). It also points out that different poets may use different kinds of imagery, arguing that Keats’s poetry is dominated by tactile and organic imagery and Shelley’s by kinesthetic imagery. At the risk of simplifying a complex topic, I concentrate here on visual imagery, as most imagery in contemporary American poetry is of the visual kind.
Much contemporary American poetry neglects melopoeia, the music of syllables and words and phrases, in favor of phanopoeia, the play of imagery, or in the case of avant-garde poetry, some of which reads like a Cliff’s Notes version of theory, logopoeia, the play of ideas. Too often, however, the images neither play nor work, and the ideas are out on strike. (Horace wrote that poetry should instruct and delight, but too much contemporary poetry skimps on the delight and teaches nothing one didn’t already know.)
I’ve become interested in what I call the image-phrase, which isn’t strictly descriptive or visual but evocative or connotative (something along the lines of the absent presence of a flower that has never existed conjured up by the word fleur for Mallarmé). The image-phrase strikes me as a more flexible concept than the image per se. The image-phrase mingles perception and conception; it captures the inseparability of image and language, and also the way that a phrase can produce an image that is not a picture of something. The aim is a perhaps paradoxical sharp-edged, precise evocation.
Words are not pictorial, except in their visual presence as marks on a surface, a presence which is in itself not linguistic. There are no images in poems. There are conjunctions of words by means of which the poet hopes to induce the reader to produce a mental image in his or her mind (and such an “image” is as much verbal as visual), an image that will be analogous to the image the poet wants to appear at that point in the poem. “As far as poetry is concerned, there are no sensuous visions that correspond to what a poem tries to say. Instead,…the concrete actualization of poetry lies in its linguistic shape, not in the highly problematic visual representations poems are supposed to stimulate. Poems do not need sensual representation to actualize themselves. They are concrete enough in the medium of language” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 143-144). In Saussurean terms, one presents the signifier rather than the referent, which is always unattainable in any case: the concept rather than the thing in the world.
Jack Spicer writes in one of his letters “to” Lorca that he has tried to be “independent of images…to make things visible rather than to make pictures of them” (After Lorca, in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer 34). This is close to what the image-phrase attempts to do, knowing that it is an impossible aim. Spicer, though, claims to seek “to make poems out of real objects,” though he also claims, contradictorily, that he wants “to point to the real” (op. cit. 33), which would indicate that those objects have stubbornly stayed outside the poem. An object in a poem, unlike the strips of newspaper and wallpaper pasted into Picasso’s collage painting Glass and Bottle of Suze, is not a real object, but a virtual object, a verbal simulacrum of objecthood. A poem cannot be constructed out of things, or even ideas and emotions. As Mallarmé reportedly told Degas, poems are not made out of ideas, but out of words. The only objects in poems are words, and words are not objects in the same way that globs of paint, that shapes and colors are.
Words can elicit visual responses in the reader’s mind (though the relationship between a reader’s visual response and the visual impression aimed at by the poem is contingent at best), but the paradox of how a visual impression or experience is conveyed or recreated in a nonvisual medium is irresolvable. Much as we might wish them to, words do not embody things. How often I’ve been frustrated by language’s incapacity to capture a visual impression, the nearly-full moon at eight haloed by a pink-tinged mist and wreathed by a half-circle of bare and partly-bare branches black against the blue-fading-into-deeper-blue night. So many words and that moon’s still not there. As W.J.T. Mitchell points out, “Since literary representation does not represent by likeness the way pictorial images do, literary representation is itself only and always metaphorical” (“Image,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics 557). The idea of representation is itself a metaphor when applied to literature. Visual images bear a perceptual resemblance to the things that they represent, but words do not resemble that which they attempt to represent, except insofar as they represent other words (as in literary presentations of speech, writing, or verbal thought). Verbal descriptions are never depictions. “The concept of ‘poetic imagery’ is thus a kind of oxymoron, installing an alien medium (painting, sculpture, visual art) at the heart of verbal expression” (ibid.).
Painting and writing work very differently in this regard, because a painting is always itself an image, even if it’s not an image of anything. There are actual colors and actual shapes that, whether or not they refer to something else, exist as material entities in themselves. A painting, or a sculpture, can be thought of as an image of itself. I often prefer nonrepresentational art exactly for this reason. Representational paintings seem on the one hand redundant (an image that’s also imaging something else) and on the other hand distracting (the image being represented takes one’s attention away from the image the painting is: and I’m very easily distracted by subject matter). I’ve seen the world, and I don’t particularly need copies of it. My interest is in the painting as a painting, not as a painting of something. As Adorno writes of traditionally representational paintings, “To the extent to which we detect in them images rather than replicas of something, they are ‘abstract’” (Aesthetic Theory 46).
Clyfford Still’s wholly abstract paintings are landscapes of color and shape. There’s a large all black painting of his at the Art Institute of Chicago (I can’t recall the title, though I’ve tried to look it up) that’s like a sea of black with black islands of textured paint rising out the surface. How often I’ve been tempted to touch that painting, to feel the textures that the eye only intuits. But words, as words, don’t have that palpable solidity, that visceral immediacy. We hear or we read and we must then translate.
Language is an in-betweenness, the interrelation of elements. Language doesn’t just relate things: language is relation. If it’s purely material, its no longer language, just scrawlings or noise (though it might then become visual art, like Arakawa’s work, or music, like some of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s language experiments). If it’s purely conceptual, without manifestation, then it’s no longer language either. Some experimental poetry (concrete poetry, for example; I don’t know what the poetic equivalent of conceptual art would be) tries to approach one or the other of those extremes as closely as possible while still remaining language.
The sound of a word can fill the mouth or ear with pleasure, but that sound isn’t the word. A beautifully scripted or typeset word can give visual pleasure, but those marks on the page aren’t the word either. Nor is the verbal concept in the mind, unspoken. Words are defined by their liminal state between the immaterial and two states of concretion, thoughts on the one hand and marks or sounds on the other. It’s the conjunction and co-presence of these two modes that makes language language.