The image is at the heart of poetry. Without the image, there can be music on the one hand and speech on the other, but not poetry. This is because poetry originates in the human impulse to control the uncontrollable by recreating it. Examples are the cave art that depicts successful hunts (as far as I know, there is no cave art depicting unsuccessful hunts) or when Yahweh reveals himself in a burning bush and Moses asks his name because knowing the name of a god gives you power over that god. Similarly, love poetry conjures the beloved. Sappho asks Aphrodite to help her win her beloved, and Neruda re-creates Josie Bliss in “Widower’s Tango.” He goes so far as to describe her making water behind the house, a “silvery, persistent honey.” (Donald D. Walsh tr.)
The image is central to the act of conjuring. Sometimes in poetry we conjure the past, remember the dead, say to them what we didn’t say, or said badly, when they were alive. We are told the Orphic mysteries involved the phrase: “As above, so below.” One world mirrors the other. The poem is a counter-world that mirrors this one, that challenges its reality. In the process, it affirms the integrity of the self, the self’s right to re-make the world, to refuse to be reduced to statistics or biological destiny. In order to create a world strong enough to stand against the forces that all-too-convincingly tell us that we’re unimportant, we make images, pictures of the world we devise. If those pictures are real enough, the reader will say, “Yes, it’s exactly like that!”
The rhetoric of argument, discourse, exists within the day-to-day world. It involves the maneuvers of armies, the building of schools and prisons, the regulation of trade, even the regulation of ideas, which is perhaps one way to think of philosophy. There is no disputing the magnitude of that outside world or how it can crush us in a thousand different ways. Against it, we have poetry, where the poet tells us to listen to this story, this song, let these pictures enter through our ears and make us look at things differently. Stevens described poetry as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” To be clear, poetry does not stop bullets or convince citizens to defy demagogues and politicians to behave themselves when no one is looking, but it struggles to create a reality that affirms our dignity as individual selves even in those moments when it despairs of its own ability to change anything.
That is the ironic aspect of poetry. It offers us most when it grieves the hardest, when it acknowledges that Orpheus cannot bring back Eurydice from Hades, that dictators make their omelets with the broken eggs of the bodies and minds they subjugate, that human beings get old and die. In other words, the articulation of despair and pain places that despair and pain within a different context, as part of a story where the sufferer has a voice and will be heard. In this, poetry is much like prayer, and sometimes the line between the two is blurred. The person praying knows that the value of prayer is not just how effective it is in convincing a deity to fulfil the prayer. It is a statement that affirms the value of the one praying and, therefore, answers itself. Plotinus called prayer “the flight of the alone to the alone.” So, the value of the poem is not its ability to change the world, but rather its ability to change our response to the world.
The image, then, is more than a technical device of poetry. Our view of the world is always a singular view, limited, deficient. We see this side of the tree or that one, but not both sides at once. We cannot look up and down at the same time. If we are trying to create a reality, our tools are what we perceive, the tactile things, the cat’s fur beneath our hands, the burn of the sun on our shoulders. This is what empowers our poems, makes them real enough to do their job. The image moves quickly in our minds, just the way a perception of the world moves when we’re walking down the street or lifting a spoon to our lips. The images we present are the familiar images of our own perceptions, what we see. As a result, readers see them as well.
The image is the re-creation of the exterior world. It is also a subversion of that world, taking what in discourse is a weakness, the partiality and subjectivity of our perception, and making it into a strength. And, it transgresses boundaries. Idols are frowned upon in western religions not just because they reduce the unseeable to the seen and not just because they were ineffective—idols like poems can’t change the exterior world—but because they were an assertion of power on the part of the worshippers. The image of the god could be manipulated, smeared with honey or calves’ blood to try to make sure the worshippers got what they wanted. While the image in poetry does not change the exterior world, it does manipulate the reader’s response to that world, and it does offer the possibility of an alternative world. It is primitive in this way and takes us back to rites of magic performed by torchlight in caves. Images are also dangerous because they are not limited to just one meaning. They can have different meanings in different contexts or to different readers. We can create them but not necessarily control them. They tend to make a poem go off in its own direction, one that we have no choice but to accept. In this as well, they are at the heart of poetry.