We met in a strange world

…We met in a strange world, in a frenzy.
A spiral of ups and downs.
Didn’t I feel the lit orb, inside and out?
Later, I returned to the calcium
of loneliness, the fine shell spotted and cracked,
and the delicate thing ticking inside.

from “Certain Sparrow” Anne Marie Macari, She Heads into the Wilderness


On adjectives

a continuation of my poetic love affair with Ellen Bryant Voigt

and because it makes me think, hard, about how language works

Nouns are the strongest parts of speech; without nouns, there is no poem, maybe no language: if language points to or names, then the nomen is language. The noun is the source of the image—a verb needs an agent. Nouns collapse the distance between language and the external world, and carry tremendous syntactical power.

Adjectives, on the other hand, can be weak, dispensable, hollow or predictable. If you consider an apple, are not all the usual adjectives assigned to already part of your image? Red (maybe yellow), crisp, sweet, tart, juicy—listing these adds nothing to our understanding of apple-ness. Discussing Robert Haas’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Voigt explains:

After all, “tender” is more amorphous than tenderness, “thirsty” less commanding than thirst, wonder more solemn and convincing that “wonderful,” despair a good deal more respectable than “desperate.” The debasement of adjectives is more widespread now than at the turn of the century, their descriptive prowess weakened by the direct image of photography, film, and television, their value judgments grown suspect in the sake of advertising’s unsupported claims. Anything, it would seem, can be GREAT! WONDERFUL! SPLENDID! if we say it is, whereas most people probably still wish to believe that “greatness,” “wonder,” and “splendor” have some objective standards, some specific denotations, even if we can’t agree on what they are.

But adjectives can be much more than this, can define more than they describe. Because adjectives can be subjective, not fixed, they can become vital to a poem’s tone and meaning. The lyric, in particular, needs adjectives, just as discursive poems need nouns and narrative poems need verbs. From Plath’s “Ariel,” for example, come these: substanceless blue, brown arc, dark hooks, black sweet blood mouthfuls, red eye. This list alone is the feeling, the tone, of the poem.

Adjectives can also reverse or alter the surface meaning of the poem. Voigt’s explanation of this, in a poem I love, is the string of three adjectives at the end of William Carlos Williams:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

And which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Without that last sentence, there is no poem. In a brilliant arrogance, the final assertions—delicious/so sweet/and so cold—both justify and undercut “Forgive me.” Pleasure first, virtue second, oh surely you understand.

Adjectives can describe, they can limit, they can serve precision. They can contradict, correct, or amplify the possible meanings within the noun. More than that, adjectives restore the eye, and the “I,” to the poem: they supply tone, the context without which nouns can be imprecise, incomplete or misleading.

In short, adjectives not only annex precision and clarity, for more exact meaning, and add nuance and resonance, for evocation of emotion; in their amplifications of tone they acknowledge the poet’s subjective presence in the poem. […] Adjectives moderate between nominal fixity (the world’s facts) and mutability (change enacted on them); they strengthen the noun by adding response to fact, by limiting or expanding the noun, and by admitting into the poem the human sensibility that is apart from the world, thereby putting the yearning self in alignment with the world.


If music is both sound and feeling, then adjectives are a crucial source of music in our poems, meditative or narrative or lyric. […] Because of its subjective nature its presence in the poem is the hardest to earn; craft does not put it there so much as vision, intuition, temperament, perhaps even character.

Rabbit Hunting Day

Rabbit Hunting Day
draft 4

straddling the culvert, a baby blue ’57 F150
gun rack arms skeletal

the smallest Carhartt scarecrow, snatched
by barbed wire, grunts across frost-
crackled grass tinged gray washed sky

a path wailed wide by banshees
woven shut by black whipstitch tails

hunger a rhythm pulsing
fingertip to trigger dew-damp cold

click, cock, warm cheek, grain-ridged stock

NASCAR rabbits, streaking fast circles,
checkered flag snapping
fragile bone in fried flesh

Barbie’s dreams housed
with tail fluff scatter pillows


So I had this assignment to write a poem of no more than 15 lines that was all, or nearly all, images or imagistic. If you’d seen the two-three page discursive narratives I’d been turning in, you’d know why. This is what I came up with, or an earlier draft of this, anyway. But now I’m thinking about Ellen Bryant Voigt’s four categories of types of images from her essay “Image.” (I have a long summary of it in another post if you are interested.) These are:

1. pure detail (those concrete nouns from the “poem as camera” folks)
2.description (nouns with describing words that make them unique, specific to the poem)
3.figure (figurative language, such as a description of Medusa having “hissing hair”)
4. dramatic – images that carry and move the emotional weight of the poem, that create its dramatic structure, that make the connection between mind and body)

In trying to make my poem better, I’m thinking about which of these categories I use, and how I use them. And, as always, how to understand what she meant by real-life, real-time application. A quick analysis:

type 1, pure detail—baby blue ’57 F150; barbed wire; grain-ridged stock; checkered flag snaps; snaps fragile bone in fried flesh

type 2, description— smallest Carhartt scarecrow; straddling the culvert (describing pick-up truck); warm cheek; streaking fast circles; fragile bone; fried flesh; tail fluff scatter pillows

type 3, figurative language— gun rack arms skeletal; snatched by barbed wire; frost-crackled grass tinged gray washed sky; path wailed wide by banshees; woven shut by black whipstitch tails; hunger [is] a rhythm pulsing; trigger dew-damp cold; NASCAR rabbits

type 4, dramatic images—ok, here’s where I have something to figure out. An image becomes dramatic, I think, not by whether it is more descriptive or figurative, but by what emotional weight it carries in the structure of the poem. So, in this poem, the descriptive image of the rabbit-tail pillows in Barbie’s dream house takes on something else. In fact, it takes on the entire emotional weight of the poem, which it might not be able to carry. It is something about gender, about the domestication of violence, and about how hunting was part of the fabric of life where I grew up, not just a sport. And the figurative description “hunger [is] a rhythm pulsing,” sitting where it does in the middle of the poem, the pivot point from the field towards the kitchen and house, must be a dramatic image, especially in the way it introduces emotion and motivation into the poem’s landscape.

Interesting, and logical, to have dramatic images at volta and close. But I still don’t think the closing image works. Or maybe the image does but the lines or syntax don’t yet. It just doesn’t feel strong enough at the end. What do y’all think?

Carhartt scarecrow

Carhartt scarecrow

Back to Voigt for more essential craft truth

So I had no idea that Ellen Bryant Voigt would become a major mentor of mine, but I just keep finding her critical/analytical writing to be what I need when I need it. One of my many writing struggles this fall has been using image; my poems have been flat, narrative, discursive, two-dimensional, with not nearly enough emotional sparks between me, the page, and the reader. So I went looking for good writing about image, what it is, how it is used, and found Voigt’s essay “Image” (no need to search for a topic sentence with that title!) in the anthology Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World.

She has a very complicated argument/thesis going on in this long essay, which I could only reproduce by scanning in the whole thing. But I can summarize what matters to me, what, I hope, will inform the re-writes of those flat flat poems and make them better. If you are intrigued, go buy the book and dig into this yourself.

1. Traditionally, there were two ways of thinking about images in poems. The “art-as-mirror” crowd understood images as “pictures made out of words,” with the emphasis on the concrete not the abstract, on sensation not idea, and on perception rather than concept. As Voigt writes:

When one assigns the primary allegiance of poetry to the world beyond poet and poem, the value of the image is its representational power—its ability to create in the mind a color, say, which is an “ostensible copy or replica of the objective color itself” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry).

2. The second traditional way of understanding image, the lamp as opposed to the mirror, in Abram’s terms, is as “expressive.” This is the heart of the Romantic movement, the idea that poetry, figurative language, is the spontaneous product of feeling, and that the job of poetry is to convey the emotions and personal perceptions of the poet. Poetry is not to be true to an object, but to the human emotion. Descriptions, images, figurative language, serves the function of conveying the writer’s symbolic vision; “objects signified by a poem [were] no more than a projected equivalent for the poet’s inner state of mind.” (Abrams)

3. Eliot’s theory of “objective correlative” grew from this understanding, with some personal twists. I am in love with Ellen Bryant Voigt for many reasons, not the least of which is her summary of Eliot and his theory:

As is often the case with poets who undertake essays and lectures on poetics, Eliot was both justifying and camouflaging his own poetic practice: specifically, he seems busy erasing any tracks back to the mind/psyche/internal conflict of the poet as originating source and primary allegiance for his work.

4. The tension between these two understandings is the difference between an insistence that image must serve the ways the “passionate are naturally inclined to amplification” or that the image owes allegiance to external fact. Voigt reconciles/wrestles/straddles/bull rides these by building a different understanding. These are not opposite ends of a line, she says, but points on a circle. The image, she says, can be totem, both honestly itself and the way that poetry mediates emotional reality between the poet and the reader.

The idiosyncrasy of the figures does not necessarily make them decorative or indulgent: they are the weight-bearing walls of the lyric structure. If the poem succeeds, it is because what might otherwise be abstract or in accessible or private or alien—the [poet’s emotion]—floats between us and the “relict” in our minds [of the real object] like a cluster of eye-motes.

5. Now, add some more recent critical ideas to the mix. Thom Gunn, reviewing Christopher Isherwood, created a description of Isherwood’s “objective perception.” He discussed Isherwood’s statement “I am a camera,” drawing out and challenging that understanding of poetry-as-direct-recording. A camera is not a bad thing to emulate, Gunn says, because cameras do record how one thing resembles another, and cameras have a faithfulness to physical imagery through which we learn about the appearance of the world outside of us. And, he said, given the fact that humans are creatures of almost uncontrollable bias, understanding our work as being camera-like can help us escape the singleness of our minds which, if lived in exclusively, become prisons.

6. Describing this idea, Voigt writes that, while this harkens back to the understanding of poetry-as-mirror, it here becomes a moral issue of trying to find clarity in the face of human bias. She writes:

The primary virtues and functions of the image remain the same: recording the dependable concrete nouns of our common reality, uncovering the congruence among them. But one expects the fog of the individual sensibility settling inexorably on the lens.

7. In a move too complicated to summarize, Voigt then moves from the image of poetry-as-using-a-camera to poetry as using a movie camera, adding motion, time, and sound to how image is recorded and shared. This, she says, is a move in modern poetry towards dramatization, a “discerning, active eye” to quote Susanne Langer. Image in poetry records not merely the objects of the world but those objects seen, touched, heard, smelled, tasted: rendered with a halo of human response. Instead of seeing poets as only the descriptive eye or the expressive I (hey, I just made that phrase up, and I’m loving it!!), Voigt asserts:

…the image is the crucial mimetic device, essential for its power to enact not only what the writer-as-scientist has uncovered in the empirical world, or what the writer-as-ecstatic has isolated and articulated from the whirl of the individual psyche, but the moment when both are fused.

8. Which means, and here’s where I get nearly unbearably excited, that we’re talking about a new way of understanding language, poetry, our brains, and ourselves. There is no mind/body split, for “the world of sense is the real world construed by the abstractions which the sense-organs immediately furnish. The abstractions made by the ear and the eye—the forms of direct perception….are genuine symbolic materials, by whose office we apprehend a world of things, and of events that are the histories of things.” (Langer again) In short, the mind is body, sense organs and cerebrum. The mind is physical, delivering simultaneously the concrete and the abstract, the objective and the subjective, the representational and the expressive, the empirical and the assumed.”

9. Yeah, no more need to have the stupid debate about the mind/body split!

10. In Voigt’s words, then, image can reproduce both what the poet sees and how the poet sees it, eliminating the need to choose either the mirror or the lamp. Image is capable simultaneously of the “representational” and the “expressive,” and is the chief agent for mimesis in a poem written for the page. (Poems performed can add voice, timing, etc as essential elements of mimesis)

11. She seems to be suggesting four different types of/roles for images:
1. pure detail (those concrete nouns from the “poem as camera” folks)
2.description (nouns with describing words that make them unique, specific to the poem)
3.figure (figurative language, such as a description of Medusa having “hissing hair”)
4. dramatic – images that carry and move the emotional weight of the poem, that create its dramatic structure, that make the connection between mind and body)

12. Wow, typing all that out really helped my embodied mind make more sense of what she was saying/arguing/defending. In Voigt-world, of which I am increasingly fond, image is THE way for contemporary poets to make meaning; syntax is the flow, rhythm, and tension of how we convey image; and lyric the structure. (I think, anyway; I’m just about to launch into her book about Lyric). Now my challenge is taking all this and trying to apply it to make my rabbit and sea lion poems better. We shall see…

Genius on Genius—McHugh on Dickinson’s Dash

I’ve both understood and been completely mystified by Dickinson’s use of dashes since meeting her voice in high school. Finally, FINALLY, someone makes sense of it for me, in terms of how writers can manipulate syntax to create meanings, contradictory meanings, and multiple meanings all with the same few words.

from “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For” in Broken English:

Dickinson uses the dash to avoid semantic mono-determination: a dash occurs where the more exclusive choice (of period or comma or colon or semicolon) would direct the sentence to a single end. Because her semantics are multiplicative her syn-tactics need to be flexible, especially at the junctures. The same dash may operate in one reading as a period or semicolon, distinguishing what precedes from what follows it; and in another, only a blink of an eye away (and existing all the while in the text) as a sign of resemblance instead, a colon, for instance. Only by suspending the power of the period (definer and difference-maker in the prose sentence) can Dickinson interweave phrases the way she does, release meaning from the sentence’s exclusionary powers, and nudge the whole occasion toward that at-onceness which is her manifold temporality.

Heather McHugh on Emily Dickinson’s inexhaustibility

from “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For” in Broken English:

It is not the definable (delimitable), finally, that interests Dickinson; she is drawn precisely to that uneasier thing, what can’t be said. The relative exhaustibility of a literary construction is one measure of its inadequacy to this truth; and Dickinson’s sentences and lines often seem designed (in judicious ellipses, elisions, contractions, puns, and dashes) to afford the greatest possible number of simultaneous and yet mutually resistant readings. Where a lesser writer might try to comprehend the world by adding more and more words to his [sic] portrait of it, Dickinson allows for it, by framing in opposites or absents, directing us to what is irresoluble, or unsaid. Where the addition of a word would subtract even one of the cohabitant readings in a text, she leaves the sense unsteady and the word unadded. What critics sometimes lament as cryptic or obscure in her work proceeds, I think, from this characteristic reticence—a luxurious reticence, a reticence which sprouts and branches meaning in many directions, the way more exhaustive (less ambiguous) texts cannot.