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The last three Primers have been on sound patterns in poetry. The next logical step would be to discuss meter.

I'd like to have a break, though, from what could be called the mechanics of poetry -- as marvelous and essential and intriguing as I find those "mechanics", myself, I have run into rising resistance in other groups when I focus on them for too long at a stretch. <g>

So this week's Primer, written by CK Tower, is on "image".

"Image", as used in this primer, is not the same as "imagery". We will get into imagery in the next Primer, on metaphor and simile and related figures of speech.

When I think of imagery, one piece that often comes to mind is from a poem by my friend Peter Ludwin:

"What if the six white unicorns
riding out from our hollow temples
wish only to graze unmolested
beyond implacable tongues of fire?"

But image can also be the concrete, compressed detail of a haiku:

The banana tree
blown by winds pours raindrops
into the bucket
~~ Basho

Pure white plum blossoms
slowly begin to turn
the color of dawn
~~ Buson

CK has some excellent exercises in this Primer, for developing an eye for image and its use in poetry. I will also be posting a Bonus Primer on haiku -- I definitely want to cover haiku at some point in this workshop, and it is a form that "concentrates the eye" on image.

"Great Literature, if we read it well, opens us up to the world. It makes us more sensitive to it, as if we acquired eyes that could see through things and ears that could hear smaller sounds." -- Donald Hall

"It is better to present one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works." -- Ezra Pound

"Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language." -- T.S. Elliot

Definition of Terms:

Image: A literal or "concrete" detail that speaks to the physical senses.

Concrete: Vivid, graphic images that appeal strongly to the senses, as opposed to generalized "abstractions."

Abstraction: A generic, broad label that describes a large category-- such as happiness, freedom, or honor.

Introduction to Image:

Good poetry takes the reader, into a world of senses, vividly imagined details that speak to our ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch. Poetry should always be read with open eyes and willing ears. A strong piece of verse should heighten the reader's awareness, make her take in more of the world around her. A good poem asks her to look in and wonder at what she sees. A strong central image will carve itself into the memory of the reader. And set off a chain of associations, which will activate her thoughts and feelings.

Examples and Perceptions of Poems, Which Center on Memorable Images:

Thodore Roethke

My Papa's Waltz

The Whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing is not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Ask yourself, what does this piece make you see? A father, home from work, dancing about the house with his son. But there are clues to tell us all is not quite right. The whiskey on on the man's breath, right away gives a hint. And the frantic way the boy's father is spinning and prancing around, so the boy has to hang on "like death." The pans are sliding from the kitchen shelf. But it is the mother's expression which makes us certain, all is not well..."mother's countenance/could not unfrown itself." Clearly the mother does not approve of the father's behavior. The child is unsure, along for the ride.

All of these small details, set out, bring further associations. Some of them may seem confusing at first, "romp" is usually associated with a happy experience. If we consider that the speaker is a child, we can see that he may not quite understand his father's condition, and why it is objectionable to his mother.

Robert Hayden

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early,
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

The poet makes the reader feel and suffer the bitter cold, by appealing to our senses of touch and sight. It is easy to see the "blueblack cold," and feel the roughness of the "cracked hands that ached." When the fires drive away the cold, we experience a sense of relief, and we can hear the cold "splintering, breaking," in the heat. The boy's fear of his parents arguing, "chronic angers of that house." And his regret "No one ever thanked him." that he never responded to the love his father showed, by rising before everyone else to warm the house. Everything is quite understated, but shown very well by a few interrelated images.



Choose a particular item or activity and make that the object of a word search. Find out as much as possible about the language associated with the object, especially active and concrete verbs, the history of the names used for the object, and terminology that seems especially interesting. Then save from your search a list of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Write a 15-20 line poem, in any form or style, using any of the words from the lists, keeping one last criterion in mind--the subject of your poem must be completely different than the original object of your word search.


Same excercise, but only use, from your word list, 5 nouns, 5 verbs, and upto 5-10 adjectives. (words may be repeated, or the form of the word altered.)

The point of this exercise is, first to explore language sources, and second, to promote thinking about image. Also, you will discover new uses for found words, a process by which poems are often discovered. Also there is often a renewing of the metaphoric origin of a word, which has become stale with abstraction.

Critique Guidelines:

Critiques should focus on the use of language in the piece.

-Do the word choices in the piece, along with how they are put together, stimulate certain reactions with your senses?

-What do the words make you see, hear, taste, touch, and/or smell?

-Has the use of language put you in a palpable surrounding?

-How well do separate images go together to create the whole scene?

-Where and how does use of imagery help you to share in the experience with the speaker?


Discovering Poetry. Hans P. Guth and Gabriel L. Rico. 1993. Simon & Schuster.

The Practice Of Poetry. Robin Behn & Chase Twitchell. 1992. HarperCollins.

~CK~ Tower