Monday, February 19, 2007

Picture This: On the Concept of Poetic Imagery


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.


Andrew Shields said...

This really helps clarify how a poem is an "object" even though it is not an object (as we discussed in the comments to your previous post). Thanks!

scotland said...

Greetings, followed a trail of bread crumbs to this post. Expectations I have for the outcomes of human creative expression force me to consider the "real" as a quality of significant inner presence. Regardless of the form it embodies,some degree,of any moment of this activity will have been transduced into another form. I believe we can interact on multiple levels with art,yet the most primary force it issues has taken form in the greater atmosphere we reduce ourselves into being from. SPH

Unknown said...

Reggie wrote: “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.”

Hello Reggie from Ithaca—enjoying your blog. Wanted to add my 2cents. I too am attracted to imagery in poetry, almost for its own sake, especially visual—times when I think that that’s all poetry is, or should be. Lest anyone accuse me otherwise, given my penchant for intellectualism in poetry, and for language poetry in general, here’s a recent little poem of mine about a heifer I inadvertently killed back in my cattle-feeding high school days.

The Heifer

My mind on water skiing,
beer, bikinis, I hollered for
them across the dead grass,
then dumped the feed
and flew away, Peter Pan
in a little yellow pickup truck.

My father found her by the trough.
She must’ve heard my call
before the others—800 pounds
of Tinkerbell baked-clay
stiff and pregnant with grain.
Her tongue on the ground
limp as a piece of rope.

I guess there’s a lot more than mere imagery there—narrative context, a father dynamic, peter pan myth, etc., but of course I wouldn’t care about any of that if it weren’t for my wish to get across that image of the tongue limp as a piece of rope—and in fact, the poem could be faulted for not providing more context, but how much context do we want when there’s a dead body to be seen. Of course I hope I’m not in love with the image—maybe I am—but I certainly respect the power it has over me.

I’ve been thinking recently, though, about the tyranny of the visual in our culture, which I attribute to technocracy, and thus about the historical connection between a) Romanticism’s fondness for both emotion and imagery (and the importance of conveying emotion by way of imagery) and b) the birth of technocracy. By “historical connection” I mean the simultaneous emergence of the two “movements”—Romanticism and Technocracy--and thus their interdependent relationship. Neil Postman marks the birth of technocracy at 1776, the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations—which gave rich capitalists the Christian pretext for doing as they wish—the birth of exponential growth economics and its sister, technocracy, which I guess I should define here (this is mostly Postman and Jacque Ellul):

A society only loosely controlled by social custom and moral or religious tradition and driven by the impulse to invent. Smith’s “unseen hand” (God? Human nature?) is thought to eliminate the incompetent and reward those who produce cheaply and well the goods that people want, and the primary definition of mankind in a technocracy is as producers and consumers. It is a rationalistic ideology in which the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; that knowledge is defined almost exclusively as cumulative and quantitative; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts. (forgive me, I’m conflating technocracy and Postman’s “technopoly,” which Ellul argues is primarily a state of mind.) For Ellul it’s much more than merely machine technology—it’s any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result. Thus, it converts spontaneous and unreflective behavior into behavior that is deliberate and rationalized.

Sounds exactly like what Romanticism attempted to subvert, as we were all instructed in our undergraduate Romanticism courses, right? Well, the late 18th century was a time when capitalism and science were joining forces to create a totalitarianism. In the middle of the century, David Hume had demolished empiricism, hoisted by its own petard (reductively put: if knowledge is derived exclusively from discrete sensory experiences, how can we abstract from them the epistemology of empiricism--or any other abstract principle for that matter). But science, and its philosophical justification empiricism, were proving too powerful a source for efficient money-making technology to be dismissed simply because they couldn’t provide epistemological certainty. And lest we think Romanticism wasn’t smitten by this power, listen to Wordsworth:

"The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science."

Wordsworth was desperate for the clout empiricism could muster (and we saw that same dynamic play itself out in the 20th century with New Criticism). Science and empiricism in the late 18th century was so powerful that it was co-opting the forces that emereged to subvert it, as hegemonic ideologies do. As structuralism teaches us, alternative ideologies, in this case Romanticism, exist merely to support the dominant one, much as categories of mental illness support and define our concepts of mental health, and like what happens when we, say, watch a movie like Network on TV. Well, Romanticism would be marginalized soon after the publication of Wordsworth’s Preface; it was a stillborn movement, its very existence signalling the death of its own cause and the birth of technocracy.

I guess mine is a precautionary argument. Because once we claim that it is with the accurate communication of physical sensations that we "ballast" a poem, we are in effect exalting empiricism in literature--which I would argue is an old standard humanist bias—and we see it in arguments that poetry represents some “natural” function of the body, for example in the recurring theory that the iamb in English literature gives us pleasure because it mimics the sound of the human heartbeat (I just saw this again in Anne Stevenson’s essay in the latest Poetry --March ’07—here she is, arguing against language poetry: “What we call ‘the power of the word’ is really a pattern of words in a rhythm originating in heartbeat and footfall. Language, like the human mind,” she continues, “consists of a conscious and an unconscious element, and what ‘real’[her quotations] poetry can do, even when it looks like prose on the page, is to reproduce the hidden music we are all born hearing but lose as we grow up.” Who is she, Plato? The poet’s job, according to this empiricist theory, is to interpret his or her heartbeat for the reader with such “natural” skill as to make the reader feel the te dum te dum te dum in his or her ear. I’ll continue with her, because this kind of tired rhetoric, which is nothing more than Platonic nostalgia, is a persistent and limiting poetics in our culture’s arts: “The danger today lies in pursuing novelty beyond a point of no return, of technically ‘making it new’ until we no longer hear anything but the virtual pulse of a spoiled, over-mechanized civilization that is destroying its childhood as it ages, boasting the while of its progress.”

The irony of this warning is that the empiricism she’s unknowingly advocating may in fact be the social juice energizing the technocracy she rails against. This humanist, empiricist bias, as I was about to say at the top of the previous paragraph, disdains writing that gets what it calls “too theoretical,” “too textual”—if it does, then it becomes something else, either theory, philosophy, criticism, rhetoric, or exposition, but not literature. So says the literary empiricist. I would argue that that position is simply another version of the anti-intellectualism that you and I, Reggie, both disdain.

We also see the bias manifested in our use of sincerity as a criterion for judging a poem, and one of the methods poets use to convey that sincerity is with accurate and apt appeals to the senses. These are criteria that Charles Bernstein parodies so well in a few of his poems in Girly Man. Here’s part of one:

I've had trouble with
sincerity -
people say my
irony is static & that
I can't get "with"
detail. But
I've been
doing aerobics &
completed my third session
with the
chiropractor & been
better in groups

I argue that those appeals, and that criteria we employ to judge poems, are drawing on empiricist values, ones that are dangerously close to supporting technocracy. (I saw you objecting to those criteria in another of your posts in which you object to a demand by one of the viewers of a film biography of Aimé Césaire, that the film speak to him, “an average black kid on the street corner.” You write, “Why does it have to speak to him?... In our culture, anything ‘intellectual,’ anything complex or difficult, is not only marginalized but dismissed as irrelevant or, most damningly, ‘elitist,’ often by members of the socio-economic complex, like John Barr.” I would argue that empiricist demands, seen in the exaltation of imagery in poetry, is one of those factors that effects that leveling that you critique.

Maybe this empiricist tyranny I rail against (provocatively of course!) is minimized by the other two types of imagery Pound defines and you discuss above: melopoeia (“the use of the range of verbal music toward this aim”) and logopoeia (“using ideas, connotations, and intellectual and emotional associations to produce an effect in the reader”). They would certainly contribute to the anti-technocratic tendency in poetry to promote reflection—technocracy by definition is unreflective.

(btw, you can see my argument in its entirety—though I’m still hashing it out—at or email me,

thanks, Reggie.