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…