Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Object of the Poem

The Object of the poem. The resonance that you will take with you, to which you attach the meaning of the poem. The green blanket, say. An image that can accrue meaning over time, that can be more than itself. A symbol. The thing itself.

To disrupt this power, the power of the IS, are the two devils of contemporary poetry: Simile and Over Modification.

I think Simile is a weak connector, and nearly always, strikes me as fancy rather than unification, just as rhetorical metaphor often sounds overly dramatic, aggrandizing . . . . As in all things though, moderation. The well-placed fancy of Simile can complete a voice. It can bring an association into soft proximity, when soft proximity is what is called for. But Go in Fear should be written on the title page of The Book of Simile.

In much the way that Don’t Editorialize should be written on the cover of The Book of Modification. Modification, where the value-added words of “murky” “beautiful” “doe-eyed” etc., enter, is a cheap shortcut to meaning. The poem is its meaning. Simile and Over Modification blur the object of the poem, and force resonance. They create easy avenues to nostalgia and sentimentality, which should be difficult places to get to, if not avoided at all costs.

This is not an admonition to Show, don’t Tell. Show, don’t Tell is a cheap reduction of the complex relationship between the parts of the poem.

I have two guiding lights that I look for when reading poetry: The power of the image itself. And the poem unfolding as if spoken in the real language of living. They both come from Imagism, of course.

For my money, Imagism was the most interesting “discovery” in poetry in the 20th Century, so I’ll give it over to Pound (for better and for worse), as he writes the three principles of Imagism (which I’ve here edited down a bit):

1. Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3.As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.


An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. I use the term 'complex' rather technical sense employed by the newer psychologists, such as Hart, though we may not agree absolutely in our application.

It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.
It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

All this, however, some may consider open to debate.

To begin with, consider the three propositions (demanding direct treatment, economy of words, and the sequence of the musical phrase), not as dogma - never consider anything as dogma - but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else's contemplation, may be worth consideration.


Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.

Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow.

Don't imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as an average piano teacher spends on the art of music.

Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.

Don't allow 'influence' to mean merely that you mop up the particular decorative vocabulary of some one or two poets whom you happen to admire. A Turkish war correspondent was recently caught red-handed babbling in his dispatches of 'dove-grey' hills, or else it was 'pearl-pale', I can not remember.

Use either no ornament or good ornament.


At 9/19/2006 9:30 AM, Blogger C. Dale said...

Dear God, I am so glad I never had you as a teacher! You would have scared the crap out of me!!!

At 9/19/2006 9:52 AM, Blogger Suzanne said...

If you were my teacher--I would have had a mad crush on you. ;-)

At 9/19/2006 10:31 AM, Blogger Penultimatina said...


I have been making these very points for the past several weeks.

At 9/21/2006 9:32 AM, Blogger Charles said...

I have a mad crush on you, so you should be my teacher.

I told my poetry students once that similes weren't as powerful as metaphors, and then I sat down and wrote a book that was all similes and virtually no metaphors.

At 9/21/2006 11:08 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...



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