Images are powerful things. When we try to think of images that encapsulate awe and wonder, what do we think of? Almost always, we think of visual stimuli: The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, other great natural wonders or manmade creations. By definition, images carry with them a visual implication. We see the natural beauty. The human ingenuity. The profound simplicity.
And there was an entire movement of poetry focused on this.
Images are powerful things. When we try to think of images that encapsulate awe and wonder, what do we think of?
The Imagists Poets of the 1910’s sought to discover if it were possible to contain the beauty and complexity of visual image within the written form. It started with the Modernists: Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Gertrude Stein. Eventually, a new batch of poets emerged with a singular question: could we accurately replicate the visual stimulation achieved when staring at a natural monument or a work of art within poetry?
The Imagists sought to focus their writing in reality. As poet William Carlos Williams proposes in his lecture, “The Poem as a Field of Action,” pioneers of poetry should strive to stray away from “the dream” space of the earlier Romantics, as Freud writes, and instead allow the poem to live in a “field of action,” or reality itself (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69393/the-poem-as-a-field-of-action).
The poem and the images thus should speak for themselves. Imagists wrote about objects, every-day objects, animals, and plants, viewing them for what they were as they were: their image. However, this still poses a question: what are the limitations of image? Does image have a limit?
Imagists wrote about objects, every-day objects, animals, and plants, viewing them for what they were as they were: their image.
Plato and Aristotle spoke of something called mimesis, an idea critical to the creation of art: mimesis is a “re-presentation of nature,” (https://www.britannica.com/art/mimesis). Image, as it stands, is the purest reality. When we stare at Niagara Falls, we see it for what it is. When an artist paints it, however, the painting becomes an imitation of that reality. All art functions in this realm of imitation. Plato takes this concept one step further, believing all things exist in an “ideal plane,” in a perfect form, first and foremost. As a result, the thing in nature that we see is an imitation of that perfect form, therefore making the artist’s rendition of it an imitation’s imitation.
With this in mind, it is possible to argue that image does in fact reach a limit when posed against this question: how far can image be removed from reality while still maintaining Plato's definition of image? Because poetry is an imitation’s imitation’s imitation, and in this way: the poet sees the image, and instead of drawing it, describes it in words. The image has been shredded visually down into language and is only resurrected within the imagination of the reader—three planes removed from its "ideal" one. A poetic image, within the mind of a dozen different readers, does not reflect reality, but rather a dozen different realities. At that point, can we say that it is the original image, the one that inspired the poet to write about it in the first place? Most likely not.
The image has been shredded visually down into language and is only resurrected within the imagination of the reader—three planes removed from its "ideal" one.
Take for example Williams infinitely anthologized poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow":
"so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
--William Carlos Williams, (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red- wheelbarrow)
When looking at this poem, it is clear that Williams is talking about the powerful simplicity of the poem's singular image, a red wheelbarrow. However, the poetic image begins to falter when put under pressure: What shade of red is it? How damp is it? How large, how small? How rusted? It begins to become impossible to infer Plato's definition of singular image within poetry because it breaks down under the weight of the multiplicity of language, the vagueness of words. A reader will never see the first imitation, the wheelbarrow that Williams wrote of, perhaps even saw, because that image is lost in a sea of imitations.
It could be argued that this amplifies an image’s power, that the image is stronger because of its multiplicity. Poets like Gertrude Stein looked at objects and negatively described them, saying what they were not as much as what they were. Perhaps this is the only way to look objectively at objects: by classifying and acknowledging them as what they are not. However, if we focus on the ideals of the Imagists and, more specifically, the Objectivists that came after her, with their desire to capture messy reality as if looking through a window without the glass, it appears impossible to harness the power of the original image, when in order to do it, it must be disintegrated first and then given new life.
Rather than seeking the objective image, perhaps the poet's power lies in the kaleidoscopic nature of words and its endless multiplicity. It succeeds in painting the inner thoughts of not just one ideal visualization, but every possible visualization. Perhaps image's tricky nature cannot be pinned down, just like reality, with its messiness and complexity. Perhaps the window which we view life through includes the glass, the frame, and the finger prints that blur the image just beyond it. Perhaps that's its true beauty and it's true power.
Rather than seeking the objective image, perhaps the poet's power lies in the kaleidoscopic nature of words and its endless multiplicity.
In the wake of poets like William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, I wrote a poem titled, "At 20,000 feet," which tries to play with image the way that the Objectivists did. We start at 20,000 feet, and then zoom in again and again, until all that's left is the poetry itself. I hope you enjoy it.