Yusef Komunyakaa “Back Then”

I’ve eaten handfuls of fire
back to the bright sea
of my first breath
riding the hipbone of memory
& saw a wheel of birds
a bridge into the morning
but that was when gold
didn’t burn out a man’s eyes
before auction blocks
groaned in courtyards
& nearly got the best of me
that was when the spine
of every ebony tree wasn’t
a pale woman’s easy chair
black earth-mother of us all
crack in the bones & somber
eyes embedded like beetles
in stoic heartwood
seldom have I needed
to shake a hornet’s nest
from the breastplate
fire over the ground
pain tears me to pieces
at the pottery wheel
of each dawn
an antelope leaps
in the heartbeat
of the talking drum

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…

Lynda Barry on Images and Thoughts

from What It Is, her graphic/illustrated guide to writing. And living. And memoir. And art theory. This is an amazing book. Go buy it.

An image feels different than a thought. It feels somehow alive. If you say your first phone number out loud, you can feel something that is different than saying your phone number now. Thinking your first phone number and writing your first phone number and speaking it out loud are different experiences, but the image is the same. Can you picture where your first telephone was? (p. 34)

What do drawing, singing, dancing, music making, handwriting, playing, story writing, acting, remembering and even dreaming all have in common? They come about when a certain person in a certain place in a certain time arranges certain uncertainties into certain form. (p. 81)

Time + Place are always together. Why? Is imagination a time and a place? Where is your body, where is your mind, when you think? Does it go places? What is movement? Do thoughts move? When people are trying to remember something they often tap their fingers or touch their foreheads. Why does this kind of motion help us remember? Do images have motion? (pp 82-83)

An image is a place. Not a picture of a place, but a place in and of itself. You can move it it. It seems not invented but there for you to find. (p. 88)

What is a story before it becomes words? (p.44)