Monday 13 August 2012

What, in poetry, is an image?

Writing a poetry review last week, I found myself using the word ‘image’.  Then came a moment of doubt: what does it mean? 

I got out the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, again. (See last post.  I’m not going to do this every week.) 

‘Image’ and ‘imagery’ are among the most widely used and poorly understood terms in poetic theory, occurring in so many different contexts that it may well be impossible to provide any rational, systematic account of their usage.  A poetic image is, variously,
-      a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech;
- a concrete verbal reference [presumably this means a straight description];
-      a recurrent motif;
-      a psychological event in the reader’s mind; 
- the vehicle or second term of a metaphor [the second term is, for example, the beach in ‘life’s a beach’];
-      a symbol or symbolic pattern;
-      the global impression of a poem as a unified structure.

In the review, I was using ‘image’ to cover the first two items on the list, but without having thought about it much.  I think this will be clear from the context, to a general reader.  An expert might say it was anything but clear.  And of course those first two are very different – the Encyclopedia again:

The image is… a term which designates both metaphor and description, both a purely linguistic relation between words and a referential relation to a nonlinguistic reality, both a rhetorical device and a psychological event. 

The word has inspired much polemic, including a call for it to be banned for vagueness.  This very vagueness makes it useful, though: we need a word that covers the mental landscape a poem takes us through, whether this is conveyed by plain description, metaphor, a thicket of symbols or all the above.  The downside is lazy analysis of what’s going on inside the reader, the writer, the poem. 

The Encyclopedia has several closely-printed columns on the image in poetry (and pages on imagery, which I’m not covering).  The list above isn’t really a list, it’s text separated by semi-colons; but I find that breaking it up helps comprehension.  Here’s the conclusion, similarly split.

The concept of the poetic image in all its ambivalence holds part of the central ground of poetics, serving as
-  both the mechanism of reference to and deferral of an external, imitated or projected reality;
- the projection of authorial intention (but also of unauthorised “unconscious” meaning);
the linguistic ligature that composes figures of speech and thought and decomposes them into a general condition of language and consciousness;
-  the realm of polysemic freedom and dangerous uncertainty in reader response.  [for this one see also Pound’s vortex, below.]

Ezra Pound gets the last word, for two descriptions of image as psychological event.  From Poetry, March 1913:

An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.

And an even more dynamic description from Fortnightly Review, September 1, 1914:

A radiant node or cluster… a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing.

That’s what it feels like, as reader or writer, when the images (however defined) and the poem are really working. 


This blog’s going on holiday, as hinted at in the example of a metaphor’s second term.  But the forecast for Wales (and everywhere) is wet and windy, and the holiday, more hills than beaches, may take place above the cloud line. 

One thing I’ve just done is write in my diary, for when I get back, a reminder to go, again, to the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition.  It was so absorbing that I only got round half of it the first time.  There are many recordings to listen to, from Plath and Hughes, to the Beatles (plus a text of the original, more specific, better lyrics for ‘In my Life’), to Stella Gibbons talking about Cold Comfort Farm.  There are less-known authors – especially women including Mary Collier, the peasant poet; less-known sub-genres, such as Welsh mining novels.  The exhibition finishes on 25 September.

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