Monday, May 21, 2007

“The Hairy Caterpillar”: An Exploration of Image

By Addie Tsai

[Editor's Note: This essay was first presented as a lecture at Warren Wilson College, January 2005. Some of the poems presented in this feature article below may not have their formats -- e.g. indentations -- adequately presented due to Blogger format.]


In speaking about the Imagists, critic Glenn Hughes tells us the following:

Not that all poets who participated in the movement were affected by the same literatures; each poet was the product of a particular combination of sources, and the chief source varied with the individual. Yet the platform on which the imagists eventually took their stand was not such a jumble as might be supposed from the diverse origins of its elements.

As I was trying to decide what to give my class on, I realized that I had never engaged in a long-term project on the image, which is the foundational element of my work. I had never read the Imagists; I had never studied the Haiku. So I took this semester as an opportunity not only to study the use of image as a strategy so that I could understand it in my work on a more conscious level, but I also used this endeavor as a way to make sense of legacy, of the poetic lineage I was writing out of. I also feel as we step out of the haven of Warren Wilson and become part of contemporary American poetry, it’s important not only to understand craft and how to employ that in our poems, but also to be aware of legacy, of the various movements we each write out of. And when I read all of the different modes being written today, I find it difficult to find a poem that does not in some way employ the image. My hope is that you will leave this class with a better understanding of what an image is, a sense of the image’s development in American poetry, and how to use craft elements such as syntax and diction to control the image’s function in your own poems. My secondary aim for this class is to introduce you to poets that aren’t often discussed, or show you new ways of looking at their work.

What is image?
In his essay “Image” in Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass tells us what an image isn’t. “Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.”

As I see it, with very few exceptions, modern American poetry has used the image as the most effective way to translate the speaker’s colored and prismed world for a reader to access. Just a few minutes spent listening to a radio commercial or a conversation between two friends and you’ll find a world outside of poetry and craft that uses the physical as a representation for what lacks in language. For example, one day while trudging on the superhighway of concrete to my office job, I heard the following commercial for United Health Care, a health care provider. A husband and wife were in two different parts of the house. The husband was trying to clean some stain off the floor. He used one cleaner, which did not clean the alleged stain to his satisfaction, asked his wife where the heavier duty one was. The wife informs him of its location, and apparently comes into the room the husband is in a few moments later. “Honey? What’s that smell? You didn’t put those chemicals together, did you?” Then the voiceover: “Ever feel like life doesn’t make sense? United Health Care. Making sense...” The commercial gave its listeners an image. United Health Care translated “not making sense” into an image that they assumed the general public could process easily and quickly, in order to contrast it with their own tagline.

In the chapter “The Rhetoric of Image” in his book Image Music Text, Roland Barthes tells us that “according to ancient etymology, the word image should be linked to the root imitari. Thus we find ourselves immediately at the heart of the most important problem facing the semiology of images: can analogical representation (the ‘copy’) produce true systems of signs and not merely simple agglutinations of symbols?” Agglutination is defined as the building of words from component morphemes that retain their form and meaning in the process of combining.

Whether the poem is lyric, meditative, narrative, or post-modern in type, the image is used as representation. We use the image to translate our idiosyncratic view of the world. In writing a poem, a poet creates an image—a physical “copy” of the speaker’s mental interior—through language. The way I would rephrase the problem that Barthes poses is the following: we find ourselves immediately at the heart of the most important problem: can representation produce both the physical picture it describes and the metaphor it attempts to communicate? Inevitably, this is a question of representation and texture. Ask yourselves as we move through Imagism, haiku, and the contemporary work, what is an image?

A Bit About Imagism
The forerunner of the Imagist Movement was Symbolism. The ideas of the Symbolists were orderliness (exactness of form) and objectivity. They tended to present descriptively the phenomena of the external world and to suppress undue personal emotion. Baudelaire is considered “the father of Symbolism.” The Symbolists wanted to combat realistic materialism and to free French poetry from the tyranny of conventional form. They endeavored to give their images of externality a spiritual and symbolic value. They opposed description for its own sake; they replaced literal directness with suggestive indirectness. For example, the following lines of Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances” well illustrated Symbolism’s mission with the image: “Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants, / Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies, / —Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants...”: “Perfumes! Some fresh and cool, like babies’ skin, / Mellow as oboes, green as meadows; some / Rich and exultant, decadent as sin...”

In 1908 T.E. Hulme, considered by many the “father of Imagism,” founded the Poets’ Club where the first experimental Imagist poems were read and discussed. F.S. Flint, one of Hulme’s contemporaries and a critic of free verse, what was called “vers libre,” says about the beginnings of Imagism: “I think that what brought the real nucleus of this group together was a dissatisfaction with English poetry as it was then being written. We proposed at various times to replace it by pure vers libre; by the Japanese tanka and haikai. By all this, Hulme was ringleader. He insisted too on absolutely accurate presentation and no verbiage.”

Hulme said that “the great aim is accurate, precise, and definite description. It is essential to prove that beauty may be in small, dry things.” The following entry was found in scraps of his notes which may be helpful in seeing how the founding member of Imagism looked at the image as a magnifying lens on the world.

I look at the reality, at London stream, and dirt, mud, power, and then I think of the pale shadowy analogy that is used without thinking by the automatic philosophers, the “stream of time.” The people who treat words without reference, who use analogies without thinking of them: let us always remember that solid real stream and the flat thin voice of the metaphysician, “the stream of time.”

We may say that the reader habitually takes words as x, without the meaning attached.
Aphra sees each word with an image sticking on to it, never as a flat word passed over a board like a counter.

Perhaps the nearest analogy is the hairy caterpillar. Taking each segment of his body as a word, the hair on that segment is the vision the poet sees behind it.

It is difficult to do this, so that the poet is forced to use new analogies, and especially to construct a plaster model of a thing to express his emotion at the sight of the vision he sees, his wonder and ecstasy. If he employed the ordinary word, the reader would only see it as a segment, with no hair, used for getting along. And without this clay, spatial image, he does not feel that he has expressed at all what he sees.

The ordinary caterpillar for crawling along from one position to another.

The hairy one for beauty, to build up a solid vision of realities.

The prose writer drags meaning along with the rope. The poet makes it stand on end and hit you.

The Imagist Manifesto
In 1915, the first Imagist anthology was compiled with the following well-known credo included in the preface:

1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.

2. To create new rhythms—as the expression of new moods—and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.

3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.

4. To present an image. We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.

5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.

6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

I. Imagism: H.D. – “Mid-Day”


The light beats upon me.
I am startled—
a split leaf crackles on the paved floor—
I am anguished—defeated.

A slight wind shakes the seed-pods—
my thoughts are spent
as the black seeds.
My thoughts tear me,
I dread their fever.
I am scattered in its whirl.
I am scattered like
the hot shrivelled seeds.

The shriveled seeds
are split on the path—
the grass bends with dust,
the grape slips
under its cracked leaf:
yet far beyond the spent seed-pods,
and the blackened stalks of mint,
the poplar is bright on the hill,
the poplar spreads out,
deep-rooted among trees.

O poplar, you are great
among the hill-stones,
while I perish on the path
among the crevices of the rocks.

“Mid-Day” manages what Ellen calls in her essay on image “the representational and expressive” by shifting between the images of nature, the “representational,” and statements of the speaker’s emotional state, the “expressive.” The first two stanzas set up this back-and-forth pattern so that in the remaining stanzas, the reader automatically detects the image as expressive and representative of the speaker’s emotion. Hulme states that “the object must cause the emotion before the poem can be written,” and the images H.D. uses cannot stand as representative of the speaker’s emotional state without first being established as such. H.D. has to give us that organizing principle before we can assume the image has significance outside of their physical description. For example, the shifting back and forth in the beginning lines “The light beats upon me./I am startled—/A split leaf crackles on the paved floor—/I am anguished—defeated,” gives the image more symbolic weight, and the corresponding emotion validity. The image of the light beating upon the speaker and the split leaf crackling on the paved floor qualifies the abstract emotionally weighted words “anguished,” “defeated,” and “startled.” The specificity of the images adds to the texture of the speaker’s emotion. The split leaf crackling on the paved floor is a complicated image that gives us many details that would seem extraneous. The paved floor implies a polished, perfected quality while the split leaf crackling implies a brokenness, and the words H.D. gives to these complex emotions—anguish, defeat—also connotes a kind of broken feeling, a person that has been split herself, crackling on the ground as the pure and whole outpouring of light beats on her. This juxtaposition between the images of the light and leaf with the charged lines of the speaker gives the verbs in the image lines more weight as well. The meaning of “beats” and “crackles” are more heated because they represent more than the literal meaning of the objects H.D. describes. This strategy creates a duality between image-speaker. The images are appropriated by the speaker’s emotional state, and the speaker’s emotional state is given its own visceral anchor.

In terms of diction, the elements of the image are expressed using a monosyllabic adjective followed by a monosyllabic noun: “split leaf,” “paved floor,” “slight wind,” “black seeds,” “shriveled seeds,” “cracked leaf.” H.D. interchanges verbs and adjectives used with the image for the speaker and vice versa. In the first stanza “a split leaf crackles on the paved floor,” and in the beginning of the third stanza, “the shriveled seeds/are split on the path.” And in the middle of the third stanza, H.D. changes the verb “split” to a word similar in sound, “slips/under its cracked leaf.” In the second stanza, “a slight wind shakes the seed-pods—my thoughts are spent/as the black seeds,” and then in the middle of the third stanza, “the grape slips/under its cracked leaf: yet far beyond the spent seed-pods,/and the blackened stalks of mint,/the poplar is bright on the hill,/deep-rooted among trees.” Here, the spent seed-pods are a variation on the first three lines of the second stanza (“A slight wind shakes the seed-pods—my thoughts are spent/as the black seeds.”) and the blackened stalk is a variation on “black seeds.” The “poplar is bright on the hill” refers, both imagistically and syntactically, to the first line “the light beats upon me.” This last line of the quoted passage merges the two types of syntax. In the first two stanzas, the lines of representation use the structure of noun, active verb, direct object and the lines that express the emotional tenor of the speaker use the structure of first-person pronoun, present auxiliary, past participle. This line “the poplar is bright on the hill” uses the noun (image syntax), plus present auxiliary (speaker syntax) and prepositional phrase with a direct object (image syntax). This strategy is subtle and effective, merging image with speaker, and leads to the poem’s ending, personifying the poplar with the direct address of second person.

The beginning of each stanza uses the dash and the line to separate image from speaker. In the first stanza, the first two dashes help split speaker from landscape: “The light beats upon me./I am startled—/a split leaf crackles on the paved floor—/I am anguished—defeated.” The image is contained between two end-stopped, compressed sentences involving the speaker. In the second stanza, the dash and line break separate first person from landscape: “A slight wind shakes the seed-pods—/my thoughts are spent/as the black seeds.” The dash and line break separate the first person in the second line from “slight wind” and “seed-pods.” The line “my thoughts are spent” is split from “the black seeds” at the end of the sentence. The sentence crosses three lines and at first glance the line breaks seem a choice of phrase or unit of sound: “my thoughts are spent,” “as the black seeds.” But now the speaker is sandwiched between the two images, giving a sense of balance and tension to the sentence and poem. The first line of the second stanza lends a physical representation of the image, but it is the second and third lines that build on that literal description to give the expressive image metaphorical weight to the speaker. At this point, the reader can assume that the slight wind not only shakes the seed-pods, but also the spent speaker. And because the seed-pods now represent the speaker’s emotions, the emotions take on an imagistic integrity as well. The last sentence of the second stanza separates the first person subject from landscape: “I am scattered like/the hot shriveled seeds.” The structure of this line in comparison to “my thoughts are spent/as the black seeds” is almost identical. The syntax is identical. The subject shifts from a possessive of thoughts to a direct first person, and the verb changes from “spent” to “scattered.” The “hot shriveled seeds” stands alone, whereas the passage at the beginning of the stanza was broken before the subordinating conjunction “as.” This progression enables the third stanza to stand on its own imagistically, without the qualification of the speaker’s emotional position.

Critic Glenn Hughes says about H.D.’s poetry: “The movement is usually staccato. The succession of short lines creates a breathlessness which is peculiarly effective. We are always on tiptoe, strained and alert, while our fancy darts and flashes after the gleaming images. Yet, in spite of the predominance of a bird-like quickness of style, we find in these poems movements which are extraordinarily legato, in which the short lines are so softened by word-music and by carefully modulated cadences that all abruptness disappears.”

II. Haiku: Issa

The Chinese and Japanese written languages are based in a pictograph system where each word has both a visual representation and a literal meaning. The Chinese word for poetry, shi, is composed of two characters. The character yen, meaning word; language and szu, temple, monastery. So, in other words, poetry is a “temple of words.” In a sense, that’s what the Imagist and Haiku movements are establishing, that language can have both a physical and metaphysical representation.

The word “haiku,” originally spelled “haikai,” means “starting verse.” The Haiku as a form emerged in Japan in the 16th century as a lyric, incorporating images from nature and alluding to a particular season and religious beliefs (or a historical event). Well-crafted haiku were also intended to enlighten the reader with a sudden epiphany called satori. Critic Kenneth Yasuda, author of The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples, tells us that a haiku moment is “that moment of absolute intensity when the poet’s grasp of his intuition is complete, so that the image lives its own life” and that “a successful haiku renders then a speaking, vibrant image.” In addition, the function, Basho, a 17th century haiku poet, says “is to rectify common speech.”

Before briefly looking at haiku by Issa, I want to make one quick disclaimer. The 5-7-5 form is commonly mistaken as the dominant, and sometimes only, defining characteristic of the haiku. Contemporary Japanese poet and critic Shin Asano has remarked that in the Japanese language the poetic groupings of seventeen syllables existed long before it was identified as haiku, suggesting that the number of syllables is not only a historical accident: “Haiku did not come from chained verse nor from haikai verse. It originated from the main stream of basic poetic elements in our language.” So, in discussing haiku, I will not discuss the form.

Eighteenth century poet Kobayashi Issa is considered the best loved of the haiku masters. Issa began writing haiku as a young child and by the end of his life, had written over 20,000 haiku. Issa, whose name means “a cup of tea” or “a single bubble in steeping tea,” is described as Whitman or Neruda in miniature, because his poems teem with creaturely life, such as fleas, flies, and snails. His life was filled with misfortune—he lost his mother at an early age, his stepmother mistreated him, he suffered from poverty, his children died and his marriage with his second wife was not happy. Issa’s poems are known for their use of dialect and colloquial language. Issa also gives such a steadfast eye to the creatures in his poems, that one feels, through his careful observation of the fragility of life around him, how intense Issa’s pain, how defenseless he is against the suffering in the world.

Bright autumn moon—
pond snails crying
in the saucepan

               Don’t kill that fly!
               Look—it’s wringing its hands
               wringing its feet

                              For you fleas too
                              the nights must be long
                              they must be lonely

                                      Come with me and play
                                              parentless sparrow

Issa’s haiku merge the emotional core of the speaker with an image in the landscape that embodies that emotion. For example, in the haiku Hell, the first in a series of six named “The Six Ways,” Issa states “Bright autumn moon— / pond snails crying / in the saucepan.” As you can see, in Issa’s haiku, an image is followed by the something emotional or human that represents it. In “Hell,” the light of the moon and the abstract religious idea of hell are quantified by the image of snails burning in a saucepan. Because these are “pond” snails (and not a different kind of snail), I see an extended metaphor throughout the poem—the moon sizzling the snails, the saucepan synonymous with the imagined pond. The saucepan is round, like a pond is round, with the weeping snails juxtaposed against the initial image of the moon. The word “crying” reflects not only the heartbreaking whinny of the snails being scalded but the emotion of the speaker in hell.

In the haiku, “Don’t kill that fly! / Look—it’s wringing its hands, / wringing its feet” there is a loud silence in between the first and second line. Issa manages a direct address to the reader through its two imperatives at the beginning of the first and second lines “Don’t…!” and “Look”. The exclamatory tone at the end of the first line continues with the “Look” of the second line, creating a heightened pace in the tone. The first line’s exclamatory tone and direct address creates an echo with the anxiety of the fly depicted for us in the following image of the fly wringing its hands. Through the speaker of the poem and the image, the fly is personified. The speaker tells us that the fly is “wringing its hands / wringing its feet” as a human would under stress, anxiety, or sadness. But because the fly is also “wringing its feet,” the speaker’s anxiety is emphasized through the fly’s fear of being killed. The speaker asks us to sympathize with the fly, to notice the fly under a kind of duress that we ourselves could be found inhabiting.

In the haiku “For you fleas too / the nights must be long, / they must be lonely” the speaker allows us to access his emotions through the imagined emotions of the fleas he addresses. The adverb “too” and the repetition of the auxiliary verb “must” are the only indicators of the speaker’s emotional state. The repetition of “must be long,” “must be lonely” also gives the poem a sad tone. Because the fleas are also lonely and feel the nights are long, their supposed loneliness is reflected back onto the speaker. Issa is able to create an emotionally charged moment for the speaker without ever using the first person or a pronoun addressing a human self.

One of Issa’s most commonly known haiku, “Come with me and play / parentless sparrow,” was written when he was a young child, after losing his mother. The first line, which seems innocent and plaintive, gains emotional charge with the introduction of the parentless sparrow in the second line. “Come with me and play,” an indirect address to a second person “you,” is qualified by the image that follows: “parentless sparrow.” As the reader, we can visualize a child standing in front of a single sparrow asking it to play with him. “Parentless sparrow” employs mixed diction. “Parentless” is a word typically used for human children, but in Issa’s poem describes the bird instead. In one phrase, Issa simultaneously indicates the orphaned state of the speaker and the solitude of the bird.

III. Contemporary American Poets – Brenda Shaughnessy, Quan Barry

As I said in the beginning …, this [essay] is about craft and context, about uncovering my own legacy. I chose contemporary Asian American women poets because of the sense I had of my own homogenous poetic influences. And since craft was also at the forefront of this class, I made efforts to communicate with each poet in order to find out how they all thought about image in their own work, what it meant to them, and how they viewed their own hybridity of poetic influences.

In speaking to Brenda Shaughnessy about the differences between the Imagist and Haiku movements, she said the following. “What the haiku does is it connects a human element to a natural element in a way that is completely yin and yang. The humanness is never central. And we as American poets can never see ourselves as anything. An image representing the self.” And Mong-Lan ventured to ask the question, “Should one sing of the self (being American) or sing of one’s surroundings with the self (being Asian)?”

I see a singularity and authoritative voice coming from the Imagist poetries, and a voice that displaces the first person while also using the instantaneous image coming from the Haiku masters. This was one of the ways I saw a merging in these new poets. In our discussions, Mong-Lan initially disagreed with my claim that in the poems of contemporary Asian American poets there existed a hybridity between the tradition of Haiku and the Imagist movements. What I was thinking of in terms of poetic movement and historical tradition, Mong-Lan was thinking in terms of what she called Asianness and Americanness: “I believe that the displaced ‘I’, at least in my work, that you believe comes from an influence of the haiku, is really, in fact, a way of thinking and a way of being Asian. The self in Asian thinking is submerged to the interests of the family and the whole, whereas in Western thinking, the individual, the self, is lauded and sung.” To my mind, Mong-Lan agreed with my claim, but used different terms to define it. A reader cannot look at the poets of Imagism and Haiku without taking into account the cultural sensibility these poets are writing out of. My intention is not to overlook this obvious distinction, but to view these poems more in terms of craft than culture. And now I’d like us to look at these poems together. I’ll start us off, and then lead us in a discussion of one poem by Brenda Shaughnessy and one by Quan Barry.

Brenda Shaughnessy – Three Sorries

Three Sorries

I’m Sorry

I hid your life vest in the deathtrap on purpose, my love.
I’d hoped you die, and in this way, live. Sorry.

Three snakes asked me three questions each,
each requiring three answers.

My answers, thrice tripled,
looped back around to the natural sounds

of just forgetting, of the tenderly adjusted.

Soon I                Born: 1970
               2)                Cried: all along
               3)                Loved: you really so very much and no others

blurred into: I)                begging off for the dog-years behavior
               2)                extra heart hidden in sock drawer
               3)                undetected slept with others

It’s not as if, it wasn’t because, I didn’t mean
it three to the thirtieth power and replacement.
All seemed collapsible into one sentence,
which I hope you can read into: I’m sorry.

In speaking to Brenda, two statements she made about poetry come to mind as I read this section. 1. “I fell in love with the possibility of saying three things in one sentence.” 2. “How can a poet let go of wanting? All you have is your heart, which is designed divinely to want, right? And the reason you have that is to give it away. That must be why I write love poems: so I can keep my heart even as I give it away.” Contextually speaking, this poem communicates both of these sentiments, that the speaker wants to tell the beloved three things in one sentence, which is directly stated in the section’s ending lines, “All seemed collapsible into one sentence, / which I hope you can read into: I’m sorry.” and that the speaker is leading the beloved to a kind of simultaneous emotional death so that the speaker could bring the beloved back to life.

The section progresses in two ways, in ways similar to the poems by H.D. and Issa: the poem evokes the emotional tenor of the speaker through image. The statements that directly express the speaker’s emotional state can only do so through a layered texture the images create. For example, the first couplet consists of both image and an apologetic address from speaker to beloved: “I hid your life vest in the deathtrap on purpose, my love. / I’d hoped you’d die, and in this way, live. Sorry.” The contradictory elements of the image itself, the “life vest” hidden in the “deathtrap,” extend the notion of an apology for an intentional wrong.

The apology, which stands alone as its own sentence, is the last word of the couplet. Shaughnessy creates a complicated emotional tone in this first couplet that’s both brutally honest of the speaker’s purposeful wrongdoings but tender towards the person being addressed. The possessive term of endearment, “my love,” and the “sorry” at the end of each line in the first couplet establish the speaker’s emotional state, laid bare by her confession. Further, the contractions in the second line, “I’d,” and “you’d” and the “Sorry.” in the second line mimic a lover’s informal spokenness and contribute to the speaker’s honest tone. The poem also closes with the more direct statements of the speaker, and extends the spokenness to the last two couplets with the phrases “It’s not as if,” “it wasn’t because,” and “I didn’t mean / it.”

The entire first section is crafted in terms of contradictory elements. The images seem overall to evoke a kind of hiddenness the speaker wrongfully enacts, where the direct statements the speaker addresses to her beloved are cut open and communicate sadness, the loss of love. For example, the image of the snakes leads the poem to the formal lists in the middle of the poem, which are the speaker’s answers. The first series of answers are direct and more emotionally charged and honest: “Cried: All along,” “Loved: you really so very much and no others,” whereas the second series of answers are more image-based and tell of the speaker’s deceit: “extra heart hidden in sock drawer, and “undetected slept with others.” The phrased “blurred into” speaks back to the couplets describing the snakes, and her admission that the answers “looped back around to the natural sounds of / just forgetting, of the tenderly adjusted.” The answers in the second list are those that were first forgotten in the first. The speaker claims she “cried all along,” but the corresponding number two in the second list refutes that claim with the hidden “extra heart.” The image of the “extra heart hidden in the sock drawer” extends the metaphor the poem began with, the life vest in the deathtrap. And the section’s final line, “I hope you can read into: I’m sorry” points back to the images of the poem that act as code, the lines themselves hiding the heart somewhere.

Don’t Be Sorry

Keep doing it!
Make the red lead ball float on the black
snow of a small man’s monstrous land.

The details distract me from the basic landscape.
Lurid with everyone young,
all singing toward a patch of backbends

and no pain, your lavender plane aims
for a wet landing
between two pointed green breasts.

And, drunk, just makes it.
Will do it again this way, calm as a skunk
on the road, smelling cars and so certain

that cars smell her. But they don’t.
Throw your body over the many-storied ledge
again, to prove you can’t undo it.
And further, wouldn’t. Won’t.

“Don’t Be Sorry” sets up a ring-like structure with the use of an imperative that moves us through the surreal images the poem presents us. The poem’s section title, “don’t be sorry,” is a directive and the poem’s first and last stanzas also use the imperative to the second person. The first imperative in the poem is vague—“Keep doing it” whereas the poem’s ending imperative directs the beloved with a specific prescribed action, “Throw your body over the many-storied ledge...” The imagery progresses from a series of surreal images to more real-life images. The images in the first half of the poem have a kind of metaphorical power that is complicated through the diction and the placement of diction. For example, in the first image, “Make the red lead ball float on the black / snow of a small man’s monstrous land,” the placement of “monstrous land” after “black / snow” implies an image of a man, instead of the land of a man. & when I read this image, I saw the dark haired back of a man when reading the words “black snow of a small man’s monstrous land...” Did any of you experience the image that way? Just like the first section and the other poems we’ve discussed today, the poem still complicates the images through the other statements in the poem. The line “the details distract me from the basic landscape” refers to the surreality of the images she describes, the imagery farther removed from the “basic landscape” or from a conventional view of reality. The second main image that moves us through this poem is the image in the third stanza, “...your lavender plane aims / for a wet landing / between two pointed green breasts. / And drunk, just makes it.” The imagery throughout this poem has two layers to it: the real and the surreal. For example, in the first image, we have the very real picture of the “red lead ball” with the surreal and contrasting “black / snow” and the small man’s “monstrous land.” In the second image, because she ends the sentence with the compressed “And drunk, just makes it,” the surreal “green breasts” become a metaphor for beer bottles. This poem also seems to me about the intention of a lover’s wrongdoing, just as “I’m Sorry” was. There is an implied apology that the speaker responds to with the title and the last three stanzas point to the lover’s imagined culpability. In the last image, the lover is compared to a skunk, an animal who knowingly trails between cars with its smell: “Will do it again this way, calm as a skunk / on the road, smelling cars and so certain // that cars smell her.”

The beginning and end images are structured through the syntax of imperative, where the middle stanzas of the poem use the sentence to tell the reader what the second person being addressed does willingly. The images make a progression from surreality to reality. The last two images of the poem, the skunk simile and the final image-imperative address, are images firmly based in our own real landscape. The poem creates a ring structure with the end image, figuratively describing what’s set up in the first line, “Keep doing it!” “Throw your body over the many-storied ledge / again, to prove you can’t undo it. / And further, wouldn’t. Won’t.” The diction “many-storied” also points to the layers of story alluded to in the first section. “Keep doing it!” the speaker says. You’re not sorry. You’re no sorrier than a skunk. Throw your body over the ledge again, to prove you wouldn’t change a thing.

How Can I Not Be

You make me sound so bad. At our miserable dinner,
even my own chewing disgusted me, as if I’d borrowed
myself from you, with a weak smile. I promise I’ll give it back.

Stories with no sex, no terse, conspicuous absence
of sex and no characters you can project sex onto
never get picked out to read in bed

nervous about, but hoping, for sex.
You’re a big, crazy skeleton with black, mean hair
and the same eyes. Same stalky hands fluid as always

carving into the same groove so as to seem endless
but there’s no surprise, just that pinch of you moving
like mercury to look as unfathomable as time or trash.

Tell me a new story, one you don’t know the middle of.
There’s only so much I can take; that’s the mistake.
And I take it back, I’m not sorry. Not sorry at all.

Each section of the poem “Three Sorries” evokes the thematic concern of a lover’s wrongdoing—in the first poem, it was the speaker’s, the second poem, the “you.” The poem as a whole questions the idea of apology. In the first poem, the speaker was apologizing for an intentional wrong doing to her lover, and an attempt to kill and save the lover at once. Although the speaker in the first poem apologizes in the first stanza, it doesn’t seem genuine, with its terse one-word sentence, “Sorry.” The speaker intends her described actions. The second poem is structured around the imperative “Don’t be sorry,” and evokes the implied apology from the second person that the speaker rejects because, like a skunk, the lover would “do it again.” In the third poem, the implied apology in the title “How can I not be” is retracted by the poem’s end line “And I take it back, I’m not sorry. Not sorry at all.” Like the first two sections, the third poem is structured around the title: “How can I not be?” The first stanza and the last stanza are the speaker’s direct responses to the question. The first stanza elaborates on the title, evoking the implied attack from the lover: “even my own chewing disgusted me as if I’d borrowed / myself from you, with a weak smile.”

The imagery in section three merge the kinds of images found in section one and two. The description of the lover she addresses is an image based in surrealism, like the images in section two: “You’re a big crazy skeleton with black, mean hair / and the same eyes.” The second image seems to me to speak to the first section’s imagery, with its contrasting elements: “pinch of mercury,” “unfathomable as time or trash.” And like both sections, the syntactical qualifiers complicate the speaker’s tone: “to seem endless,” “to look as unfathomable as time or trash.” In addition, the imagery gives a physical representation to the speaker’s emotional state, and is followed by the speaker’s sentiments about story. There’s an implied story being spoken in the first stanza, what the speaker rejects and is “disgusted” by, that the speaker refers to in the second, by saying “stories with no sex, no terse conspicuous absence / of sex...never get picked.” The imagery that follows represents the lover in bed, and images of sex with the lover. Like the first two poems, the speaker doesn’t directly speak to the lover about the apology until the last stanza. The statements the speaker makes to the lover at the end of each section give a textured emotional depth to the poem because of the images that set up the emotional tenor of the poems.

I wanted to close this poem with Brenda’s words. In speaking to her about this class, she told me the following about how she viewed, image, the haiku, and craft in her own work.

“The translation from inner reality to external order can be gruesome. You learn how to conceal yourself, but it’s like wearing a transparent outfit. The transparent fabric being such a glorious beautiful fabric that what people notice is how beautiful the fabric is, even though you can see right through it.”

“I think it’s difficult to get across a feeling like love or obsession or desire without any kind of description and sometimes describing an emotion is too circular it doesn’t give the reader any kind of foothold. You have to remember that the image used does represent our ideas of the individual and that is very different from traditional haiku. We are coming from a place that though we understand the nature includes all of us, we are coming from a strict, immovable mindset that we are individuals. We as American poets never see ourselves as anything. An image representing the self.”

Quan Barry: Motif #1 as Location

Motif #1 as Location
               Rockport, MA

This is what the afternoon said: content begets form.

The trick is to capture this in words—the shed’s doors covered
               w/lures, traps, ropes.

& the late summer sun over the eastern bluffs, the dune grass serrated & whipped,
               the sound like an insect swarm.

& the light glittering on the harbor, the shed’s clapboard siding
               seasonal, rusty.

The first time we met there was nothing to say—the way this fishing shack
               is its own image, which means I took you for the thing itself—
               hands like nets, the small scar at the corner of your eye.

What happens when the beginning of a story is no longer told?
               How did I come to feel this way?

Because this is what the afternoon said—the structure red & mythical,

When you think of me this winter, please think of me
               as a space.

This poem is like an instruction manual for how to write through content. Barry tells us “content begets form” in the first line, and from that point, we are moved through the poem image after image, with the understanding that the image is acting as representation. The “this” in the second line is ambiguous. Does it refer to the sentence that afternoon said to the speaker, “content begets form”, or does it refer to the phrase that follows, “the shed’s doors covered / with lures, traps, and ropes”? In the series of images that follow the initial image of the shed’s doors, Barry doesn’t extend the image of the door until the end of the series, “...the shed’s clapboard siding seasonal, rusty.” By doing this, she creates a kaleidoscope of image intensity. We see each side of the landscape the way light hits a crystal at five different angles.

The ampersand at the beginning of each of these images enables the poem to continue with a fast-forward motion that increases the complexity of one basic landscape to describe the shed’s doors. In addition, the form, as the speaker states, is produced by the content. The form enables the poem to show all these different aspects of the shed in the landscape without losing intensity or speed. It also links the images together in a way that the conjunction “and” would set them apart. The other aspect of form in this poem is the indented second line of the couplet, and in one stanza, second two lines of the tercet. When I read this poem the last few times to analyze it for this class, I could see a similarity between Barry’s couplet and the haiku we read by Issa. The speaker expresses the figurative about the image at the end of the couplet, like a haiku, instead of interweaving the two. I especially see this dialogue between Quan Barry’s imagistic couplets and haiku in the couplet: “& the light glittering on the harbor, the shed’s clapboard siding / seasonal, rusty.” This couplet could have just as well as been written as two distinctly separate lines: “& the light glittering on the harbor, the shed’s clapboard siding. / Seasonal, rusty.” And, like the H.D. poem we read at the beginning of class, the poem progresses from the mere image, to using the established series of images of the clapboard and external landscape to represent an other that she addresses in the latter half of the poem: “The first time we met, there was nothing to say—the way this fishing shack / is its own image, which means I took you for the thing itself— / hands like nets, the small scar at the corner of your eye.” I’m instantly taken back to the first thing the speaker tells us, that “the trick is to put this in words.” The speaker struggles to express the emotional concerns of the speaker, and uses the image in order to represent that complicated struggle. She tells us directly that “there was nothing to say” and that “the fishing shack / is its own image” in order to set up an equation for the poem that consists of creating an image for the thing felt, but not easily translatable into words. The “other” addressed in this part of the poem is able to be represented via fishing imagery because the lyric emotional tenor of that imagery has been established in the first part of the poem. At the end of the poem, the traits of image are directly transferred to the “afternoon” and the speaker: “Because this is what the afternoon said—the structure red & mythical, / intuitive. // When you think of me this winter, please think of me / as a space.”

In speaking to Quan Barry over the course of the semester, she told me the following: “To me, the image is everything. For the past several years, I’ve been nursing an on-going obsession with Terrence Malick’s film Thin Red Line, which is probably one of the most lyric/image-driven examples of Hollywood film making in the last thirty years. In thinking about his film and his use of natural imagery, I began to think more deeply about how I construct images, how I want them to function. In the end I came to realize I want images to do the most heavy lifting in my poems—to create atmosphere, to obliquely further the narrative, to be statements in and of themselves. Case in point: the opening shot of Thin Red Line is of a crocodile sunning itself on a riverbank, then pushing off into the water. The reason why I find the image of the crocodile so effective is because we the viewer have to contextualize it, decide what the image has to do with the movie. What’s being commented on? The ruthlessness of nature? Its inherent beauty? etc. To me, the best images set something up (perhaps many things simultaneously) and then allow the reader to put it together. Finally, on the question of imagery, I would also say that when I was an undergrad at UVA, Rita Dove told me not to be afraid to create images I couldn’t rationally explain. That piece of advice opened up a whole world for me, and it’s something I try to keep in mind.”

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge: from Pack Rat Sieve

Pack Rat Sieve


Never mind if he calls, the places you get
through inwardness take time, and to drift
down to the shore of the island, you know
by the sand moving, even the coarse sand here
It's hard to say if you can even stand up, there
but there is blue sky, and blue water tipping up
the same distance from you as your face. Its face
goes further behind the eyes, without weight
or haze, and the horizon is just a change where
from going deep you go wider, but go

A rainbow lights up the land it touches
but it's the sun lighting up rain and the badlands
This is what I am always trying to do, make
the air into its form, but I want the real form
and get scared by obscure wind from canneries
Only when you see completely through it can
a mass of swifts on the far ridge like a sunspot
or King Lumber smoke become sieved gold from a river
You see their yellow breasts, then each yellow breast

If you want to call him, use the radio, whether
others hear, or the mail in a week. Regular telephone
poles extend only miles beyond Juneau, to the last house
and a cigarette can be lines to the horizon in a room
The sun leaves low hills first. One imagines one can see
some last glint on a crest, but one imagines car lights
coming over the hill. Or a town that hangs there
The man in the radar valley is turning up his lamp to read
Though scaffolds on the rim of the grass bowl are still
distinct, he wants to reference the late hour

This part of the field is green. Spruce poles
lower his nets. Oil could hold the debris in a circle
where the birds all turn inward, standing on one foot
and very still on some pieces of spar. If I want
to call you. I could use the radio, still. At twilight
Spruce Island, tipping up, grows into a large violet
shape that is not one violet, because the light goes
behind the trees, too, where I can't see it. I
want the pieces of light ingots that make me see
that can go through wires as voice, that
can be expressed by adrenalin or originated in eyes
Their weight is the weight inside a suitcase
or in a wet rain slicker. A person can be the door
of them, and doesn't grow thin with sense the way favorite
trousers grow subtle, but shred "all at once." Those
stiff new sails lead the wind, because you can't
lash them close enough, yet

And you're nervous about how green you are. You don't like
me to watch you threading it, here, from the dock
or changing a new pole that is oozing too much
What a kind of fool. I thought everyone
weighted the world down by choice, or where they
saw it. He says it's hard to shut out the world
with a thought. I shut my eyes. I hear a long branch
scraping against another, continuously, like a violin
without breath. It's hard to keep from imagining
the virtuoso in his purple shirt, extruding a last note
Fools won't document your clumsy voyage across the bay
Maybe I'd better go to Alaska, not flood the engine
and recognize which island to land on. They are
all sparking in the sun...

This passage is just the beginning section from a much longer poem. Like the Barry poem ... stated, this poem is also organized by the principle “form begets content.” The poem’s first section has a very fast engine that propels it forward. Formally speaking, the poem gains its momentum through abrupt-seeming enjambed lines, the lack of ending punctuation (each new sentence begins with a capitalized first line without a preceding period to end the previous sentence), and through the metrical phrasing. The repetitive conjunction “and” helps to link the thoughts of the speaker together to create an impatient, rambling, conversational tone. Like the poems of Brenda Shaughnessy, the images are followed by the colloquial beginning phrases. These phrases ground us in the personal context of the speaker, and the images that follow add to the emotional implication we receive from that spokenness. For example, I’ll note a few of the phrases I’m referring to, and then elaborate on the images that follow those phrases. In the first stanza, “Never mind if you call,” “you know,” and “It’s hard to say if you can even” and in the second stanza, “This is what I am always trying to do,” “but I want the real form and get scared by,” “Only when you see completely through it,” and in the third stanza, “If you want to call him,” and in the fourth, “If I want to call you.” The fifth, “And you’re nervous,” “You don’t like me to watch you,” “What kind of fool.” “I thought everyone” “He says it’s hard”, “it’s hard to keep from imagining.”

These phrasings stylized to match the tenor and pacing of a human’s speaking voice to another are the adhesive that bind the images together, and bind them to an emotional frequency. Because of the imprecise nature of the information that’s given in our daily conversational voice, Berssenbrugge is able to refer to images without specifying exactly where, or exactly what. For example, in the first stanza, we’re not sure what kind of landscape we’re placed in when she says “to drift / down to the shore of the island,” “you know by the sand moving,” “even the coarse sand here.” And then “there / but there is blue sky, and blue water tipping up / the same distance from you as your face.” Berssenbrugge builds a kind of domino structure with the images. The phrases that address the “you” link to the images, the images lead to personal material, etc. The simile that ends “as your face,” that I just read from, builds to “Its face / goes further behind the eyes, without weight or haze,” and then haze leads to “and the horizon is just a change where / from going deeper you go wider, but go”. As I stated earlier in Quan Barry’s poem, this poem’s content also produces its form. In the second stanza, the speaker even tells us in similar words to Barry’s “Motif 1”: “This is what I am always trying to do, make / the air into its form, but I want the real form / and get scared by obscure wind from canneries...” You’ll also notice that each stanza is like its own container, starting and ending with a kind of meditation on calling her beloved, and in between that ring-shape the beginning and endings create, there is a wonderful jumble of image-texture and emotional-texture interwoven with each other. For example, the second stanza begins with a rainbow lighting up the land, and ends with the yellow breasts of birds, and gold being sieved from a river. She also shifts back and forth between the kinds of rings she creates. The first and third stanzas create rings through the emotional meditative addresses to the “you” the speaker struggles with calling, and the second and fourth stanzas create a ring structure from the actual landscape. The second is rainbow, as I just mentioned, and the fourth is the fishing, the field, and the water. The farther we get into this section, the closer we get to the speaker’s emotional state, and the context between the speaker and the “you.” Wrought addresses to the you like “What kind of fool,” now have a kind of kaleidoscopic effect that establishes the emotional and physical and psychological landscape the speaker is inhabiting. The landscape is directly interwoven with the speaker’s emotional space in the lines “He says it’s hard to shut out the world / with a thought.” when the speaker proves the validity of the “he”’s statement with an image: “I shut my eyes. I hear a long branch / scraping against another, continuously like a violin / without breath.” And then she brings a person in the mix too: “It’s hard to keep from imagining / the virtuoso in his purple shirt, extruding a last note.” The end of this last stanza take us back to the beginning: “the island to land on,” “drift down to the shore of the island.” I think this is an incredibly hard thing to achieve in a poem, and from the haiku and the Imagists to the contemporary poets we read today, we can see how to make the form from emotional space to image that represents it rock solid, so that we can shatter the pieces and put them back together.

In closing these poems, I’d like to end with the beginning of a talk Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge gave at The Poetry Project in New York:

This talk is trying to be an example of the moment when knowledge in the body starts to cross over into knowledge that you can say.

I will try to elucidate the feeling of tunings of the richness of the events in your experience, as degrees of meaning of your experiences.

I am going to try and do this by creating a patchwork or collages out of words to imitate the experiential patchwork, the patchwork of our senses, and the meaning we attach to those patches, which I will call a feeling of meaning, or in daily life I want to call it a feeling of richness.

It interests me, to make this patchwork two dimensional and opaque, although it probably isn't. Because I want to use the opaqueness as a richness of saturation or density in our experience of a moment or of an event. Whereas the time in which we experience is really more like a layered sound.

Is it how close you are to being a creature that enables you to experience with sensuality,

or is it the refinement of a moral sense, so that the person's feeling and sense of meaning are congruent with each other?

And this is really talking about the way a poem means something.

I wanted to end with this poem because, on a whole, I really feel these contemporary poems really speak not only to each other—they all address an “other,” and the speaker of each poem attempts to understand the emotions towards this “beloved” through image. They are all asking and exploring, through their poems, the question I posed at the beginning of this class. How the image represent the speaker’s emotional tenor? Can an image be a physical and emotional translation, transliteration, of the speaker’s world? Absolutely. And because as people we attach so much charge to the landscape, an image we select as representation can result in a tone for the speaker without ever having to be explicit. In these three poems, when the speaker does speak discursively, there’s so much more weight behind it through the texturizing the images bring to the poem’s world. Image provides us with layering to make our worlds within our poems and our speakers within those worlds as complex as we’d like.


Addie Tsai holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Forklift, Ohio, Born Magazine, Caketrain, and NOON: A Journal of the Short Poem. Tsai received a Pushcart nomination in 2006 and received third place in the Tin House Summer Literary Seminars contest for her poem "The Language of Breaking." She lives in Houston, Texas.


At 4:53 PM, Anonymous caterpillar engine repair said...

That was beautiful, long and i enjoyed reading every single sentence.
“Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.” that is beautiful, do you knopw where i can get a copy of this? i would like to present it to my class. thanks.


At 11:53 PM, Blogger EILEEN said...

I see 20th Century Pleasures available on Amazon, both new and some inexpensive "useds",


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