Seeing into a poem
Some time ago, an essay appeared in these pages about imagism in modern poetry. The writer saw the prominence of this school of writing as a sign of our antispiritual times. He warned readers of this ''linguistic idolatry,'' a mere substitute for rhyme and true feeling. ''Using an image in poetry and creating a possibility in the reader's mind are entirely different things.'' I too can vouch for the accumulation of dead weight that marks some contemporary poetry. But it is quite another thing to brand imagism as the source of that gravelly avalanche. In fact there are few concepts of the twentieth century that have done so much to revitalize the life of literature and thought.
The modern strain of imagism was born about seventy years ago. The American poet and critic Ezra Pound and his literary circle adopted the concept as a way of reviving English poetry. Victorian verse was well on its way to a stifling extinction, overburdened as it was with massive doses of florid rhetoric, genteel sentiment, and antique convention. Pound discovered a spirit in Far Eastern poetry that he felt might work as well in our own for Japanese and Chinese poetry seemed solid and compact, full of tangible experience. Their ancient language was itself the key to this vitality, in which you could present the reader with both a picture and the verb to bring it to life - all packed inside a single written character. These were the qualities that had been drained from Western poetry: the concise and suggestive use of language; the focus on a life experience and not the ideas behind it.
Instead of diminishing the spirit of its readers, imagist poems demanded acute attention and relied on the personal response more than ever before. The important moments in one's life need not be predigested and fully analyzed in order to be shared in a poem. Why not provide the moment itself - lead the reader into the poem's presence until the individual feels the lines of sight and insight actually drawn around him. Don't tellm the readers what to think and feel; showm them a glimpse of your world and trust that the communality of human consciousness will bridge the gap between individuals' experience.
And what of the sheer beauty of language; does imagism abandon the delight of poetry's verbal dance? Not at all; instead of using words as the decorative embellishment of an idea, they were to become the bones and muscle to support a new form of dance with its own special grace. Of course this placed a fresh set of questions before the poet each time he or she approached the page: Which words and what tone of voice best suited this particular poem? Were the words hard or flexible, descriptive or provocative; did the sound and the texture of the words support or undermine the creation? It was no longer a case of mastering appropriate styles or conventions; the poem demanded that the writer be aware of both the experience itself and the way the moment was resounding through his or her mind and body. The wholeness of a poem, the unity of image and idea, language and form, would be realized or destroyed according to the sensitivity to that wholeness within the poet himself.
In the simplest, most commonplace minute of a person's life, there is a fullness and complexity no artist could reconstruct on a page. The object then is to grasp intuitively the few images and sensations that do not enumerate but implym the full scope of the living moment. As Pound described the process: ''One is trying to record the precise instant when a thing, outward and objective, transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.'' Seeing into an imagist poem, a reader might not arrive at the same conclusions as the poet. But if the reader sees at all, brings imagination into alliance with the words, the poet has perhaps offered the finest possible gift: one's own self, awake and alive.
A perfect example is this poem by the great Chinese poet Li Po, translated here by Ezra Pound with his inimitable sense of image and tone. ''The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter'' is filled with the markings of this young woman's world. While my hair was still cut straight
across my forehead I played about the front gate, pulling
flowers. You came by on bamboo stilts, playing
horse, You walked about my seat, playing with
blue plums. And we went on living in the village of
Chokan: Two small people, without dislike or
suspicion. At fourteen I married My Lord you. I never laughed, being bashful. Lowering my head, I looked at the wall. Called to, a thousand times, I never
looked back. At fifteen I stopped scowling, I desired my dust to be mingled with
yours Forever and forever and forever. Why should I climb the look out? At sixteen you departed,$5You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the
river of swirling eddies, And you have been gone five months. The monkeys make sorrowful noise
overhead. You dragged your feet when you went
out. By the gate now, the moss is grown, the
different mosses, Too deep to clear them away! The leaves fall early this autumn, in
wind. The paired butterflies are already yel-
low with August Over the grass in the West garden; They hurt me. I grow older. If you are coming down through the nar-
rows of the river Kiang, Please let me know beforehand, And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
The young woman grows from innocence into a kind of knowledge; the bond between wife and husband is strained, but makes its first step toward maturity. Rarely are the feelings and discoveries mentioned outright in the poem, yet by the last line we somehow understand them almost as if they were our own. What do we come to know about a boy on bamboo stilts and a girl pulling flowers by the gate of their village? Why do we feel so much from such simple things - blue plums, the chatter of monkeys? Of parting, of time spent alone and waiting? The poet teaches not by philosophizing but by having us watch the moss grow (until we can even tell the different mosses from each other), by the autumn leaves and the yellow August butterflies.
I would have to write a dozen pages of prose in order to describe this woman's struggle, the detail of place, that the poet has developed in these thirty short lines. Li Po created his ''letter'' in eighth-century China; but because he constructed his emotional landscape so carefully, our minds can inhabit it now - a thousand years and many miles from our world. The image in a poem is not a senseless stone but a living reflection of our human presence. With an artist's skill, these images can teach the reader not only to grasp the art of the poem but to recognize that same sense of grace and design all about them, wherever they might turn.