Poetic Imagery

In a sense this page is a disambiguation exercise. A lot of people use the word “image” or “imagery” in relationship to poetry without having first thought about what images are, or what it means to represent an image within a poem, or how weird it is that this term refers simultaneously to the thing being represented and the representation itself. I think it’s worth our time to clear up this mess, and in doing so to set up the rest of this summer term, with its emphasis on imagery and the visual aspects of poetry.

Partly the confusion arises because some critics like to use “image” as a synonym for “metaphor,” which is sad because metaphor is such a useful and precise term.  But, like metaphors (which have a vehicle on the page and a tenor that the reader infers the vehicle has substituted itself for), I hope we can agree that images have both a textual and an extratextual element: there’s a textual “trigger” on the page that evokes a picture in your mind, and then there’s the picture in your mind that the language conjured up. This is an important first step toward a clear definition, since we still need to be able to point to something on the page in order to avoid falling into the Affective Fallacy. Not only do you need to be able to point to the trigger, you also need to be able to objectively describe how you got from trigger to mind-picture (eg, to rationalize its mechanism). If I read this line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “And mermaid-like awhile, they bore her up…” about the death of Ophelia, and point to “mermaid” but am unable to explain how I got from that word to a 2006 Dodge Ram extended cab flatbed truck, I am clearly doing something wrong. On the other hand, it would be unspeakably literalist of me to say that you’re not allowed to think of anything except what you see on the page, which is to say, words. Clearly poems do their work on us in a variety of ways — by suggesting, through language, voices, situations, actions, and scenes — and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do as a sensitive reader if, when you read a poem, you try to imagine in your head what is happening.

So let’s define “imagery” as “the creation of an image in the reader’s mind by a poem” and an image as “the reader’s paratextual visualization of a moment within a poem.” By “paratext” I simply mean something that exists in parallel with your reading of the content of the poem – if you were to read “My Last Duchess” and write down a plot summary at the same time to keep track of all the characters, that’s a paratext; ditto for finding an image on Flickr or Tumblr that crystallizes how you’re imagining a particular part of the poem. Images are places where the poem surrenders some of its agency to you to imagine what’s going on, and it can be both a welcome opportunity for the reader to insert herself into the interpretive act (a part of the normal process) and, for some, a threatening indeterminacy, since we can’t quite be sure we’re all imagining the same picture. What’s important to me is that you can explain where your image came from and rationalize its causal trigger in the poem in ways that make sense to another reader. Also, that you accept that any mental pictures that cannot be rationalized and verified should be rejected by all of us (and by you too).

Hopefully the process I just described sounds a lot like our illustration blogposts and twitter image sharing exercises. If someone chooses an image that completely diverges from what you thought of when you read it, that’s a good time to tweet them or comment on their blog post and talk it through. It’s not that one of you is right and the other wrong, although, as with my Dodge Ram example above, it’s possible to be completely off-base. It’s that it’s always useful information to realize how other people examine the same text. They must be interpreting it differently than you, and if you hear them out you at least have the opportunity to be critical and reflective about your own reading practice.

So the next thing we should do is to try to acquaint ourselves with how we’re imagining what’s going on in poems in very precise terms. Take a look at “Sailing to Byzantium.” I’ll ask you on Tuesday to provide me with images for what the speaker looks like in the last stanza. At this point in the poem the aging speaker has decided to leave Ireland and sail to the holy city of Byzantium, which doesn’t exist anymore on the map and so can’t really be sailed to, and that in order to get there he has had to address some “sages,” ask them to “Consume my heart away” and “gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.” I’m pretty sure everyone by now realizes that the “artifice of eternity” is a figure for the poem that the speaker is singing/writing, and that certainly is one way of reading what the speaker becomes once he gets on the boat. But it isn’t enough to predict what he will look like. Here’s the stanza again:

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

He’s outside of nature! But he has a body! What does it look like? This is the Tuesday twitter prompt. Tweet me with an image attached, please, sometime after I post the prompt on Tuesday morning, and then respond as I redirect.

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