Worth a thousand pictures

One night on Bleecker Street in New York in the late '50s a man was speaking to me of the importance of image to poetry. He felt imagery overrode every other consideration. Five years ago I heard much the same thing from John Nims, the present editor of Poetry magazine, when he argued in his book Western Wind, ''Close work with poets' problems has shown that what matters above everything else is the concrete example.'' Nims went on to say, ''The whole approach of this book will be based upon this certainty: the nature of poetry follows from the nature of man. . . .'' This past spring I was reading a blurb about John Hollander's new literature text for colleges in which poet Hollander is quoted as saying, ''Every poem has images: every poem is, really, an image itself.''

The view of man and reality underlying such statements would lead us to believe that we can know only physical reality. Well, as it happens, not many people will accept that view, for it is at odds with the memory of their greatest moments. It is also at odds historically with literature's most moving passages. When Shakespeare's clown Bottom says, ''Simply what I am will make me live,'' a person can swell with the elation. Those common people for whom Yeats wrote his poems do not flee from the human, and are rarely turned on by rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and other such dark and murmurous artifice.

As poetry approaches either the sublime or the terrible, images disappear. Othello expresses his highest happiness with simple directness: ''If it were now to die/'Twere now to be most happy.'' W. H. Auden expresses his flattest grief in much the same way: ''I thought that love would last forever./I was wrong.'' These minds are not clouded with imagery. Quite the contrary. When poets rise to such states of expression, they do not see life with their senses, they are touched inwardly by it.

It appears we are now going through a period of ecological ''camp'' in modern poetry in which images have become inflated far beyond their reasonable value as poetic exchange. The widely acclaimed poet David Ignatow advises in a celebrated passage the following strategy: ''Get the gasworks into a poem . . . . You've got America, boy.'' Thus, it is the odd and undersung which attracts the poet's eye - the sleep of gypsy moths, the wriggle of slugs, tarpaper shacks, and purple algae. Poets hand down myths in which butterflies turn into caterpillars. They prove to themselves the sun is out by the sound of flies buzzing the garbage. But no one is listening.

Overemphasis on the image seems strangely characteristic of an age bent on acquiring things. Poets become squirrels, rummaging around for things to get them through the winter. Many of them seem to have forgotten that emotion is the source of poetic statement and that poetry itself is simply the expression of emotional truth. Monastic and remote, poets use images in an attempt to establish common ground with the reader. It's as though they were driving along a road with strangers, realizing they have nothing to say, and then pointing out a standpipe, or a cedar swamp, or a car lacking a headlight, in the hope of creating passing rapport. When a poem has no feeling to which a reader can respond, be on the lookout for standpipes.

Using an image in poetry and creating a possibility in the reader's mind are entirely different things. In general practice, they are frequently opposed. For it turns out that poems depending on imagery have the effect of reducing the reader's capacity to rise above the physical. They are quiet aspersions of the spirit: instead of philosophy we have the toothache. Meanwhile people tend to forget that, just as the greatest speakers never wrote down their words, Homer and Milton were blind, and thus notably lacking in imagery. It is a painful thing to hear poets these days singing about dotted underwear under the impression that they are walking in the footsteps of the Muse.

The image-making now current is a species of linguistic idolatry, and really little more than a substitute for rhyme. It gives the mind something to grab, just as advertisements give the eye and ear something to cling to. It is a kind of profanity in which every other consideration yields to whatever may be readily apprehended. In this parade of trifles, nothing derives from real emotional context but simply appeals to some human penchant for distraction. Such fiddling with image halts uncertainties briefly and beguiles our emulous nature, like flipping through the pages of Vogue or The NewYorker. As modern readers we are reduced to a kind of window shopping through poetry, pausing now and again to remark ''that's nice'' and then moving on through the mall or some mag. Minds once perfectly sound and curious are reduced to webbed lips parted over catalogs. A quantitative nightmare begins, in which no one speaks to us where we are most alive, but simply gives us a quick fix against our inward tremors.

This peculiar dredging for imagery in modern poetry, these tongues of shale, keep the energy crisis at the forefront of our minds. ''Get the gasworks'' indeed! But in some states we turn away from the image, having our own energy. We do not wish to be trapped by the baldly partial. We find we don't need a paramour. We need a poem.

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