Now that you know something about free verse, I thought we’d approach imagery. You will hear in workshops: “Show, don’t tell,” but that’s a bunch of malarkey. It should be: “Show what tells.” If all you have is mere description, your poem will be like someone’s photo album: interesting to you, but perhaps boring to everyone else. Many poets can describe a tree–and this is no small accomplishment–but it is very rare that a tree is just a tree.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is so wonderful in its visual accuracy that she can get away with it just being about catching a tremendous fish, but besides being one hum dinger of a fish story, it is also about the mystery, the amazement of what we might turn up when we venture forth into the world. Wonder and awe are at the heart of the ontology of this poem. Ontology is the being that both proceeds from the poem, and animates it. Best description of ontology I can give is from my life: once, I was in an overcrowded and dark car, riding to the Jersey shore. I thought my bare leg was against the bare leg of a girl I was “in love” with. The whole ride was in relation to this leg. Oh brave new world! The lights scything across the car, the sound of air planes thirty thousand feet above the vehicle, the smells of Perth Amboy… it all went into this moment when I thought: “My leg is against my love’s leg, and she has not moved her leg, and I hope she never moves her leg until we get to the shore, and she falls naked and impassioned beneath me while the sea roars, and the moon is a ghostly galleon, etc, etc, and so forth.” The feel of her leg against mine became the center of my universe. I didn’t look. I closed my eyes, to restrict my senses to the tactile. When the car stopped at a red light, I glanced over and saw that my leg was against a different girl’s leg, a girl I did not like at all. It greatly disappointed me. The rest of the drive passed uneventfully, except the girl I did not like now thought I liked her.
I had taken a single detail and made a whole world out of it. Sometimes a leg is just a leg. Imagism, in its most radical form, advocates that a leg be just a leg. Some poets are anti-ontological. Haiku, in its strict form, is supposed to build an ontology through images alone–no overt emotions, or opinions of the imagery. It should imply a season:
Old man pissing in a grave yard.
Up from the tomb stones
We’ll if smoke rises, or something like smoke, it is probably pretty damned cold. We don’t have to make a connection between the rising smoke, the piss, and the old man. I do. So here’s a rule of thumb: as much as possible, choose images that will create the effect, the mood or truth or emotion you desire. Just as good, choose images that will incite the reader to do the work for you. Don’t just describe. Also, don’t overdo the images.
Haiku is not 5,7,5. Anyone who has read Ron Padgett’s wonderful work on poetry forms, and anyone who has taken a class in Haiku will know this. I don’t like Haiku all that much, but I’ve written thousands, most of which I use as scrap material for my longer poems. You can link the Haiku:
Old man pissing in a grave yard
up from the tomb stones
He adjusts his fly.
Snow on the stone angel,
snow melting into his P coat.
At the Baptist church,
with a two hour service.
The girl smiles.
Jesus loves you.
Sound of forks scraping plates.
Ok, so now we can assume the old man might be homeless, or indigent, or willing to put up with God for a free lunch. It’s up to the poet.
Remember, telling through showing is relatively new–about a hundred years old in Western poetry. Pound and all those early modernists were influenced by the Japanese and Chinese. It was a way of getting rid of maxims, and rhetoric, and all the clutter of rhetorical devices. Let’s translate an older poem into this sort of thing:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit impediments; love is not love
which alters when it alteration finds
or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever fixed mark.
Impede what? The marriage of true minds! Or perhaps “impediments” is not a verb here, but a noun, and means imperfections.
The wife adjusts her senile husband’s
hospital gown. She covers his ass,
Her hands remembering him.
I like the Shakespeare way better. Images alone can be boring, and they have a certain arrogance. Why should an oak tree at sunset move me? And why should an old lady, covering her senile husband’s ass, equal faithfulness and steadfastness in love? Suppose I despise sunsets. Or suppose I think people should be euthanized when they become senile. Who is the writer to assume an oak tree at sunset will make me feel tender, or that I will care about a doddering old couple? Who indeed!
We must be careful what we assume a reader knows or feels. For this reason, a poem ought to offer layers of meaning. Also, we should be careful when telling what we think is true. We should not bully a reader; neither should we be so unwilling to say anything that we bog down in our mystifications. One can either find something deeper, or just enjoy the surfaces.
So here’s a difficult assignment if you’re up for it: take a poem that makes a statement, like Shakespeare’s sonnet, and “translate” it into sensual imagery, so that the statement is implied through the imagery, and nothing else. Proverbs are good for this:
You can’t take it with you.
They also serve who only stand and wait
Death be not proud nor honor long.
Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.