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Home Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ The Craft of Poetry - Imagery ~~
One of the features that distinguishes poetry from other genres of literature is the way it exploits the musical potential of language. Not only do poets play with the meanings of words, they play with the sounds of words, taking advantage of the fact that hearing something expressed can be as pleasant as thinking about it.
The poet, in that sense, is sometimes very much a musician, making a rhyming, rhythmic kind of music with words, sometimes playing off the way they sound to complement what they mean. When sound and sense complement one another -- when it seems the sound of a poem reinforces its meaning in some way -- the effect is usually striking.
Although we could spend several semesters discussing the art of poetry in all is forms and through all its long history, we can gain a preliminary understanding quickly by getting familiar with the two basic elements that begin to distinguish a poem's craft:
1. The way it uses
WORDS to create literal and figurative IMAGES.
We'll examine each of these points one at a time. They'll provide the anchor as we dip into some great poems and try to figure out how they do what they do.
WORDS AND IMAGES
"What I like to do is treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have- you, to hew, carve, mold, coil, polish, and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realized truth I must try to reach and realize." -Dylan Thomas
A poet is using words more consciously than any other kind of writer. Aiming to stir readers' imaginations, poets exploit the power of words to evoke thoughts, feelings, reflections in ways that are sometimes very direct, sometimes very indirect. A poet always picks and chooses words that are just right. Most finished poem are very deliberate products, not something casually tossed off half drunk at 3am, but something lovingly studied and toiled over. Even the spontaneous prose of the American Beat poets of the 50s and 60s was the product of artists who were very deliberate in their methods. Poetry is almost never approximate. So you know, when you read a poem, that each word was selected carefully for one of many reasons, and that if you analyze it carefully, it will open up.
Poetry works it magic by the way it uses words to evoke "images" that convey a lot of meaning once you look into them. Sometimes a whole poem is that quick image, like "You Fit Into Me" (p. 619) by Margaret Atwood (further discussion of this poem will follow below). Other examples of brief poems that are simple, quick, loaded images are Ezra Pound's "In A Station at the Metro" (p. 614) and Taniguchi Buson's "The Piercing Chill I Feel" (on the handout). What is an "image"?
An image in poetry refers to the words or the language a writer uses to convey a concrete mental impression, which may be visual, creating a "picture" in the reader's imagination, or sensory in other ways. An image can appear by the stroke of a single word, in the rush of a phrase, in a line or a group of lines; it may even be the entirety of a short poem. Wherever you find it, keep in mind that every image a poet conjures in our imaginations has been placed there by word choices. Some poets are ingenious at crafting rich, vivid images that use very few words to say so much. They have an uncanny knack for choosing just the right word or words.
Images can be further defined by splitting them into two broad categories: literal and figurative. A literal image is a mental impression created by direct description. Literal images arise out of a writer's use of concrete, specific, sensory words to directly describe something, someone, some feeling, some vision, or some experience. Literal imagery places you right there in the scene; you feel as if you have entered the world the poem has created. A figurative image is a mental impression created by indirect description, or what are known as "figures of speech." Figurative language (the use of figures of speech) is key in poetry, as we'll see in detail later. Figurative images, to begin with, can be understood as those that describe something by comparing it to something else. Metaphor, simile, and personification fit into this category.
Virtually every poem existing will make use of at least one of these kinds of imagery.
Poets are using literal imagery when they make word choices that are very direct, very concrete, specific, and sensory, inviting readers to imaginatively envision something clearly and distinctly.
A brutally direct poem that's very powerful is Ntozake Shange's poem "With No Immediate Cause" (handout). In this poem, Shange uses more than one method to get readers to pay attention. She uses repetition, and she uses a kind of shorthand, familiar diction to draw us in, get us to feel the speaker's rising fear and rage-her outrage-and another way she gets us involved is by using language that is increasingly concrete and specific, vivid, and direct. The poem willfully, consciously, with purpose chooses language designed to upset and shock us.
The poem begins with the bland kind of language we're used to hearing in news reports, or buried in a news article about a recent crime-and that's what the speaker is reading on the subway, a news report: "every 3 minutes a woman is beaten/every five minutes a woman is raped/every ten minutes a lil girl is molested/yet " We're apt to pass over these statistics, though, because numbers alone don't make us feel. I believe that is one way to read the meaning of the otherwise puzzling "yet" that appears next. There may be other ways to read it as well. Suppose, though, it's that the speaker knows that these numbers alone aren't really enough to get anyone's attention. We just say, "Oh well," and go on with our lives. But the point of the poem is to force us to focus on the horror of those numbers, to feel something about the problem (to "make the stomach believe" maybe, ala Tim O'Brien). Maybe the speaker senses that most of the people on that bus (which maybe represent most of society, say) don't really want to think about problems like this one; they want to deny their responsibility-whether they're directly guilty, or guilty of ignoring the problem. The poem, in my mind, becomes a kind of plea for people to take the problem of violence against women seriously. To achieve this, Shange has decided to employ very graphic, disturbing language to wake us up out of our comfortable complacency.
As the speaker begins to imagine the implications of the statistics she's read, she gets more and more graphic, imagining the worst. We're inside her head-the poem presents her point of view. These numbers have made her look around at the world in a different, paranoid light. Notice how her language gets more and more intense as she associates the statistics in the news article and begins to graphically imagine what their real-life implications might mean. She imagines such despicable horrors (once again, based on news stories) that she ends up completely disheveled: "i spit up i vomit i am screaming" and even imagines herself taking revenge, imagining what she'd say to the "authorities," presumably after being arrested for fighting back. Do you think she really goes home and attacks someone?
On one level the poem is a graphic representation of what's in one woman's mind as she reads an ordinary news report about abuse and rape-but because the poem is so detailed, so heightened, capturing a voice and a moment so dramatically, we can also discover other things. Maybe it's a poem about paranoia, about being afraid to ride the subway. Or it could be a poem about how the media sensationalizes violence, and the effects of that. Or it could be a poem about a woman who's about to snap, and why.
"Those Winter Sundays" (p. 532) is another strong example of how a writer employs concrete, specific, sensory description to create literal images for readers to imaginatively conjure.
At the beginning of "Those Winter Sundays" the speaker is thinking back to the coldness of his childhood. He remembers the cold in literal as well as figurative terms. First he focuses on the Sundays when his father would wake up early and get the fire going before waking the rest of the household. But the poem is really about how the speaker rues the fact that, growing up, he never really understood the meaning of his father's actions -- how they were the way he expressed his love for the family, for the speaker.
The concrete, specific
words in the poem show that the speaker does finally appreciate how his father
gave of himself to keep the family going. He now recognizes that "Sundays
too" his father would forfeit his well-earned rest and wake up in the "blueblack
cold" to start the fire. The fact that the father gets up early on Sunday
is significant, because this should be his day to sleep late, having labored
all week, but he sacrifices that for the family. The "blueblack cold"
suggests the very early hour and the bitterness of the cold. It sounds painfully
cold, like a black-and-blue bruise. His "cracked hands" suggest that
he's a hard-working man, that he's worked a long time. He might be old, or getting
old, or getting old before he's old. That's something the speaker might not
have realized as a young boy, but that he can appreciate now. The "blazing"
fire that the father creates represents the warmth that he literally brings
to the house, despite his inability to bring any personal warmth into it. As
the boy hears him prepare the fire, he hears the "cold splintering, breaking"
and may be intimidated by the sound; he stays huddled in bed listening, and
doesn't consider getting up to help. He's hiding, it seems. He might be afraid
of the "breaking" sound of the wood, associating it with the "chronic
anger" that rules the house, which is mentioned a few lines later. When
he hears his father call, he gets up, but reluctantly, in fear. To the boy,
the blazing fire doesn't signify warmth, but anger, maybe his father's anger.
But by the end
of the poem we realize the speaker understands more as an adult than he did
as a boy. He now realizes that his father has "driven out the cold,"
which sounds like he understands that his father was fighting the cold, making
an effort to defeat it. That he "drives" out the cold sounds like
he's protecting the family from an invader or a thief. And he understands now
that the act of polishing his good shoes was his way of taking pride in the
little they had. The speaker ends the poem on a note of self-incrimination:
"What did I know, what did I know / Of love's austere and lonely offices?"
That he repeats that penultimate line seems to signify his frustration with
himself for not seeing more deeply into his father's true feelings. And very
tellingly, his choice of the words "austere" and "lonely offices"
show how his understanding has matured. He now understands that his father took
caring for the family very seriously -- that he saw it as grim, "austere"
work, but that he was willing to make the necessary sacrifices to accomplish
it. And he understands, now, that his father expressed his love by tirelessly
meeting those grim, inconvenient obligations, those duties, even on those bitterly
cold winter Sundays. Maybe every day was as tough as a bitterly cold winter
Sunday to this man. But he went on anyway -- he never abandoned his obligations.
And now the child -- perhaps he's a parent himself now -- understands.
Many poems operate in this way, giving us a direct, vivid experience to contemplate. Another one to consider is "Dulce Et Decorum Est" (p. 610), written by WWI veteran, Wilfred Owen, who died in 1918, the very year he wrote this poem, at age 25. The title of his famous anti-war poem is a portion of an old Latin saying, very popular on military gravestones: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." Translated, it means, "how sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country." The poem's images, some of them literal, some of them figurative, build to a crescendo in support of its assertion at the end. It's a horrible, devastating lie that's been sold to children "ardent for some desperate glory": the idea that dying in battle is glorious, or sweet, or fitting -- or anything but the horror that the speaker's first hand account recalls.
FIGURATIVE IMAGERY: Metaphor, Simile, and Personification
"Visual meanings can only be transferred by the new bowl of metaphor; prose is an old pot that lets them leak out. Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language. Verse is a pedestrian taking you over the ground, prose--a train which delivers you at a destination." -T.E. Hulme
"What is metaphor, and how does it differ from both literal and other forms of figurative utterances? Why do we use expressions metaphorically instead of saying exactly and literally what we mean? How do metaphorical utterances work, that is, how is it possible for speakers to communicate to hearers when speaking metaphorically inasmuch as they do not say what they mean? And why do some metaphors work and others do not?" -John R. Searle
So many poets use language that's rich in the sense that it leaves a lot open to the reader's imagination, giving readers full play in interpreting. A common technique is to use figurative language -- figures like metaphor, simile, and personification abound in all kinds of poetry.
METAPHOR AND SIMILE
"You Fit Into Me" by Margaret Atwood (handout) is a brief little thing, but as you read into it, more and more meaning emerges from the one simple comparison she's drawing. You've hooked me but the attachment is painful, fatal maybe. The fact that the "you" (the other) is inside the "me" (the speaker) may represent an invasion, maybe a sexual invasion, maybe an emotional, psychological one. Maybe this relationship has really screwed this speaker up, has really hurt her. (I'll call the speaker a "her" for convenience, but notice the gender isn't specified-this could go either way.) The fact that the hook is going into they "eye" may be significant, too. The pain goes right to the soul (the eye often represents a person's soul). And there's that play on "eye" versus "I." If you read the last line "an open I" it still makes sense. In a relationship you usually make yourself pretty vulnerable but that's the risk. To make any kind of deep relationship work, you have to open yourself up. Maybe the speaker went into this relationship with her eyes open but she got hurt anyway. There's just all kinds of ways to read into this. It's a beautiful little nut of a poem.
Another poem that works its magic figuratively is Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son" (handout). In this poem the speaker is a mother talking to her son; that much we know from the title. Why is she giving this talk to her son-that's an interesting question open to interpretation. What is she telling her son? This isn't a dry lecture about the value of determination and hard work. She's trying to get through to his imagination, trying to inspire him. She wants him to know she's been there and that even if she hasn't "made it," she's not giving up. An interesting question to ask yourself might be: what do you think the mother is hoping the son will strive for? What's the reward at the top of the stairs? Material success? Spiritual peace? What do you think? As you think about this poem, you may find yourself contrasting this mother's soft, loving voice with the one we heard in "Girl." When you're ready, you can also visit Hughes' other poem in your handout, "My People" and see how it employs simile.
N. Scott Momaday's poem "A Simile" is another example of a poem working figuratively. This time the image is of two people, a couple, behaving "as the deer." What does the speaker gain from making this comparison? We can picture those frightened, self-absorbed deer walking single file, ready to fly away at the first sign of threat. The speaker is a little bewildered as to why he and his lover (wife?) are no longer intimate, but have become distrustful of one another. The image of the deer is an interesting portrait of how he thinks they're behaving, but it's not how he thinks a relationship should be. Rather than walk in "single file" a couple should be beside one another-and you could explore all of the connotations of what that might mean. What does it mean to walk beside one another? To be equal maybe, to be friends. One should not hold his or her "head high"-what might that mean? To be snooty, arrogant, self-righteous-maybe. What might it mean to hold one's "ears forward/ with eyes watchful"? Maybe that suggests always being on the alert, always ready to take offense-always insecure, and never able to extend any benefit of the doubt. It's easy to misinterpret another's words and actions. If we're always on guard like that, maybe we're more likely to take something the wrong way-and be hurt by something that wasn't intended to be hurtful. The hooves ready to take flight you can't work things out if you're always too afraid to face things, if you're always ready to run away .
A funny (but still kind of serious) poem that works figuratively is Marge Piercy's "The Secretary Chant" (p. 531). This poem uses metaphor throughout to humorously get the message out there that this worker (a woman), in this job, feels dehumanized, reduced to a function. Every portion of her body is objectified-she's the desk, the paper clips, the rubber bands, mimeograph ink, casters. Her head goes "buzz and click" and she's like a disorganized file. She's aware that those around her assume she has no intellect to speak of; to them, her mind is all buzz, all click, a crackled, crossed switchboard. She's nothing but machine, spitting out various kinds of paper. To her boss, perhaps, she feels she is no more than the sum of all of the objects which surround her, and which she manages. Although the speaker characterizes herself the way she feels she's been characterized by others, we're aware, I think, that she's satirizing the way she's been characterized. In the end she purposely, sarcastically misspells "wonce" to jab at those who've dehumanized and devalued her. Maybe the machine is breaking down?
One more poem we can look at that exemplifies the way poems sometimes employ extended metaphor is Robert Francis's "Catch" (p. 532). Baseball lovers will have an easy time relating to the kind of "catch" the two boys are having. The poet uses this easy familiarity to make something potentially difficult to understand a bit easier to envision: reading (or writing, or understanding) a poem is a little like having a game of catch. The balls come at you every which way-there's no telling how the writer will lob those words at you. But the words are expressive ("attitudes, latitudes, interludes, altitudes") and the poet uses "anything to outwit the prosy," making readers "scramble to pick up the meaning." But the reward is that satisfying feel, that great sound the ball makes in your glove, the way a reader's mind clicks when he gets that "pretty one plump in his hands."
Many poets have tried to use poetry to explore, like "Catch," what a poem is, or at least what it does. Another famous poem along those lines which also relies heavily on simile is Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" (handout). To unwrap or unpack this poem, explore the implications of all the many comparisons the speaker makes. The poem's similes help us by comparing that which is familiar to that which is strange, and by comparing things that are solid and concrete to that which is conceptual and abstract. Hopefully, as a result, we end up with a more vivid understanding of what poetry is, how it operates.
Personification is another figure of speech that poets employ freely when it suits them, sometimes in a quick image, sometimes throughout an entire poem. When you invest animals or other non-human things with human characteristics or emotions, you're "personifying" them. The point might be to "give the world life and motion" (as your textbook's glossary explains) or it might be to make some kind of sublime connection to that world. It might even be the Buddhist precept "Thou art that" given poetic expression.
Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "The Panther" (in your handout) is a powerful example of extended personification. Throughout the poem, the panther is invested with human feeling. Is it that the speaker, observing the caged panther, identifies with the pain of his imprisonment? Is it that the panther is able to communicate his pain, breaking across the boundaries that separate our species, and the speaker is sensitive to the panther's pain? As the poem opens, the speaker tells us that the pather's vision has "grown so weary" that his eyes seem blank, they "can't hold anything else." But does the speaker really know what the panther sees or if he's weary? He takes further liberties in the third line, announcing that "It seems to him there are/ a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world." Does the speaker really know what the panther is thinking here? What gives him liberty to assume that this is what the panther is thinking? He's projecting his human feelings upon the panther because he identifies with it. Once we accept that projection, once we suspend our disbelief, a powerful story emerges. From within that cruel cage-which might represent any sort of loss of freedom-the world disappears; any normal vision, normal behavior, is suspended and actions are mere motions, with no force of will behind them. Life becomes "going through the motions." Free will is paralyzed-there's no action but empty ritual. What happens next is that unasked for but inevitable glimpse of freedom, that whisper of possibility as the "curtain of the pupils/ lifts, quietly." It's not a real possibility of freedom because the bars haven't disappeared. The bars are still there. But the "image enters in." It's almost to painful to imagine. The glimpse of freedom tears through every muscle, plunging into the heart (like a knife?), leaving the poor creature (the panther, us?) to suffer. Even if you read the poem literally and aren't interested in pursuing other levels of meaning, it's an incredibly sad portrait. It's precisely the reason why I can't have a good time visiting zoos. I know they do a lot of good work. But the sight of all those caged creatures!!! I'll never forget a certain grizzly bear which lived in a permanent indoor/outdoor exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park I still remember the disturbing way it used to pace endlessly in that "ritual dance around a center," unable to go anywhere or do anything which would make it feel like a real bear with real purpose and a real will. It was so obviously in misery, like this panther. On the other hand, the polar bears a few hundred feet away were pretty cheerful, usually playing with their big red rubber ball, splashing in their pool, rolling around.
In "Mirror" the speaker is an object, a mirror. So we definitely have to suspend our disbelief! But when we do, the poem really works. In the first stanza, the mirror is in someone's house-the woman who's mentioned in the second stanza, we can suppose. The voice of the mirror is cold, mechanical. It's "silver and exact"-it has a kind of steely precision to it that feels very inhuman (which is paradoxical, since it's being given a human voice!). But it's not very human at all, swallowing whatever it sees, being truthful no matter what the effect of its truthtelling. I'm kind of reminded here of the "mirror-mirror-on-the-wall" from the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. This mirror is going to tell this woman she's not the fairest of them all and isn't going to worry how that'll make her feel. There's no worry over seeming to be cruel. Honesty trumps kindness here. That's a little inhuman, I think. Although we could discuss that. It's really something of an ethical dilemma. Suppose you were this woman's mirror, in a figurative sense, and she asks you how she "looks." If she looks terrible, will you tell her that truthfully? What would make you tell her truthfully? Well, this mirror decides that it's going to be honest no matter what, truthful no matter way. It's the "eye of a little god" (which suggests omnipotence, omnipresence), so the image it reflects, its cruel truthtelling, it's nasty but honest reflection follows the woman around whether she's in front of the mirror or not. Maybe the memory of what she sees there haunts her. But we get the idea that she keeps coming back for confirmation. The second stanza continues in the same mode. The mirror is more organic, but the effect is the same. This time we're at a lake, and we're recalling the Narcissus myth. Should she be searching her reflection for "what she really is"? Maybe that's where she goes wrong. Because the effect is the same. No lying, just the same unflattering reflection. Wrinkles around the eyes, whatever . The woman is so disturbed by the image of her own face that she breaks down in tears, drowning the younger self she no longer can find in a sea of tears. And every day, the old woman peers back at her, like a "terrible fish."
MORE FIGURATIVE IMAGERY: Synecdoche, Metonymy, Apostrophe, Hyperbole
Synechdoche, says your textbook (Bedford Intro. to Lit. 622), is a figure of speech in which part of something is used to signify the whole. In "The Hand That Signed the Paper" (p.622) Dylan Thomas focuses our attention on the hand of the ruler, his five "sovereign fingers," instead of the whole person. We come to see how this "hand" represents his imperial power--and how such a hand "rules pity as a hand rules heaven; hands have no tears to flow." The detached power with which the ruler. The hand has no pity, no feelings; it's detached from the heart, and cannot feel the horrible consequences of its actions. The pen which signs the paper is perhaps not mightier than the sword; it is the sword.
Metonymy is a closely related figure of speech in which some thing or some quality closely associated with the subject is substituted for it. In "The Hand That Signed the Paper" you see metonymy used when in the second stanza, the speaker notes that "A goose's quill has put an end to murder / That put an end to talk." The goose quill is something closely associated with the ruler's power to put his signature to the service of war and murder.
These figures, as Myers points out, help us understand, and feel, how the ruler's power is detached from ordinary empathy, sympathy, and pity -- how it's inhuman, distant, remote from all human feeling.
Apostrophe is a figure poets use to allow the speaker to address an absent audience or an audience that's not human and can't understand. It's really a way for the poet to allow the speaker to "think aloud," (Meyer 623) expressing thoughts in a organized, formal way, as if addressing some specific listener. In the past, poets used apostrophe to signal reflections that involved extreme or intense emotion, but writers today feel that apostrophe can be too melodramatic, exaggerated, or "theatrical" (Meyer 623). Today, writers are more likely to use it in a "half-serious" way, as in "To A Wasp" (p. 624). In that poem, a simple event-a wasp flies into the speaker's kitchen and lands in her cake batter-becomes the occasion of a mock serious question in the last two lines: "Did you not see / rising out of cumulus clouds / That fist aimed at both of us?"
This last line
is not only "apostrophe" but hyperbole. The cosmic "fist"
(a synecdoche, presumably, for God) finding time and cause, amidst all the serious
struggles and suffering in the world, to take aim at a woman baking a cake and
one tiny wasp is pretty exaggerated. Writers use hyperbole, or exaggeration,
to "add emphasis without intending to be literally true" (Meyer 624).
One of the great examples of hyperbole is the seduction in "To His Coy
Mistress" (p. 581). Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole. In this
figure of speech, the speaker says less than intended, to the effect that the
point is, once again, somehow made more emphatically.
Oxymoron is "a condensed form of paradox in which two contradictory words are used together. Poets use it because it "arrests a reader's attention by its seemingly stubborn refusal to make sense" (Meyer 625), and once we figure it out, we're not likely to forget it. In Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" he introduces an oxymoron in the final stanza: "And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray." How can the tears be a curse and a blessing at the same time. Paradoxically, they can. They are a curse because they are evidence of pain and suffering, but they'd be a blessing because they'd be evidence that the speaker's father is putting up a fight. And they are real evidence of love, in a strange way--they signify the ill man's pain at leaving his loved ones, his own sense of loss, and so they help the speaker feel loved.
Allusion is not exactly a "figure of speech" but it uses language in a particular way that will extend meaning in much the same way that figurative language does. Allusions are "brief references to a person, place, thing, even, or idea in history or literature....They imply reading and cultural experiences shared by the writer and reader, functioning as a kind of shorthand whereby the recalling of something outside the work supplies an emotional or intellectual context..." (Glossary, Bedford Intro. to Lit.). Allusion can be found in poems as different as "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath, "Jazzonia" by Langston Hughes, and "Hazel Tells Laverne" by Katharyn Howd Machan. In each case the poet is amplifying meaning by making careful references readers will hopefully recognize.
Symbol is another device poets can use to extend meaning. When you can understand the meaning of a word or passage in more than one way, the poet is probably using words symbolically. "Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening" or another Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken" gain force when you consider the possibility that some of the words in those poems are used symbolically.
Specific, concrete, figurative, symbolic, connotative language is what packs a poem so tightly, what wraps it in that neat package. The poet's skill with figurative language makes of poetry an art of compression. It's truly amazing how much poets manage to say with the few words they choose.
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