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Images and Their Uses

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What is an image?

The image is often seen, after it has been written, as being one of two things. It is either something that represents a thing in the "real" world, or it is seen as its own thing, divorced from the burden of representing anything other than itself. It is the latter definition that has come into more common use. As many philosophers have recently shown, written language is more than simply representational. This means that the image, rather than being something that stands in for something else, is seen as something in and of itself; tied to the things of the world, but not burdened by "representing them directly."

Instead of staying in the abstract, let's look at an example of the formation of an image. We'll start with the following phrase:

The yellow lemon

If image were merely a stand-in for something, then the phrase "The yellow lemon" would be an image. While we can perhaps see a lemon (albeit a redundant "yellow" one), there is little evidence of a mind at work in this phrase. This particular lemon lacks certain characteristics that would convey that it is being truly experienced by a person, characteristics that more recent poets have defined more accurately.

Ezra Pound made perhaps the most widely used definition of image in the 20th century: "An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" (Pound 143). In Pound's definition, the image is not just a stand-in for something else; it is a putting-into-words of the emotional, intellectual and concrete stuff that we experience in any given moment. It is also important to note that an image in poetry, contrary to popular belief, is not simply visual. It can engage any of the senses. And, in fact, for it to be an image, it must engage at least one of the senses by using sensory detail.

Take, for example, the following image (we'll build on our previous example):

The sunlight in a lemon
makes me wince.

The words don't simply stand in for an absent object. There is suddenly a full experience in the words. It feels more human. There is something intellectual (one must convert the sunlight into vitamin C in order to know how the sunlight is involved), there is something sensual (taste, sour), and a bit of emotion (probably based on whether the reader, unlike the speaker in the poem, likes lemons). The instant of time is that of the speaker eating the lemon. The moment is frozen, so to speak, and given to the reader every time they read the image.

Poet Larry Levis felt this "freezing an instant of time" is what makes the image poignant. He said:

The image draws on, comes out of, the "world of the senses" and, therefore, originates in a world that passes, that is passing, every moment. Could it be, then, that every image, as image, has this quality of poignancy and vulnerability since it occurs, and occurs so wholeheartedly, in time? (117)

It is the potential of losing the image that gives it its power. The job of the poet is to freeze the image as well as possible in a way that feels very real and human (concrete, intellectual and emotional). Taste a lemon and the sensation last for only a few seconds; write an image that conveys what it is like to eat a lemon and the sensation lives longer.

What are the uses of an image?

Once an image is created, there is often a need to place it in the context of a larger poem. While many aspects of an image may be endlessly debatable, this one rarely is: images are the concrete, gut-level part of a poem. And their function within a poem reflects that.

The poet Tony Hoagland often speaks about poems having many levels, or chakras, as he calls them. The heady and purely intellectual stuff of a poem he calls the "rhetorical." This is where questions are asked, statements are made and hypotheses are hypothesized. The second level is diction. This is where the voice of the poet comes through and doesn't concern our discussion too much here. The gut level is the image. The image, says Hoagland, comes in to fill the spaces made in the rhetorical moves of the poem. Say the poet states:

We find sunlight
in the strangest places.

Now there is nothing resembling an image here. This statement is purely intellectual, or, in Hoagland's language, "rhetorical". This statement serves to open space in the poem, allowing something more grounded and earthy to come in. Our image from earlier may work after this somehow, or many other images could follow.

The amount of space opened by a rhetorical statement or question reflects how much room there is to fill in a poem. A small question or statement may merit a simple, small image. A more grandiose rhetorical movement may call for long lists of images. Walt Whitman's lists are a good example; he posits something and then lists sometimes hundreds of variations on the theme.

This way of looking at the placement of an image into a poem is somewhat limiting and by no means exhaustive. The key to using images well in a poem is to remember that images tend to produce gut-level responses in our readers. They feel the most real. They do, ultimately, convey (in very short order) a complete human experience in words. And that is why a study of poetry almost always begins with the image. It is the backbone, the grounding rod, of the poem. Few other aspects of our language can boast such a strength.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Trans. Colette Gaudin. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1987.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil's Dictionary. Dover: New York, 1958.

Levis, Larry. The Gazer Within. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 2001.

Pound, Ezra. "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," Poetry (Chicago) 1 [1913], pp. 198-206.