Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Memory of Memory: Some Notes on Imagery

Images can be private or public but if they are any good at all, they reveal some underlying nature within us. I remember being nineteen, for instance, and reading Gwendolyn MacEwen’s signature poem “Dark Pines Under Water” and being so taken by its famous imagery evoking the Canadian Shield country of my youth, a terrain of lakes and moraines and wilderness, something I knew intimately from spending my summers in Muskoka.

I’m not sure I really understood the poem as a young man for, truthfully, I think I was much more taken with the speaker’s vatic lyricism, a frustratingly ineluctable quality present in all of MacEwen’s best work, but decades later it seems to me what this poem actually does with great ease is call into question the relationship between poetic imagery and the world at large:

This land like a mirror turns you inward

And you become a forest in a furtive lake;

The dark pines of your mind reach downward,

You dream in the green of your time,

Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for

Although it is good here, and green;

You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,

You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper

And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper

In an elementary world;

There is something down there and you want it told.

Early in the poem MacEwen contends that what we identify as the image in a poem is not merely a mental picture, but something much deeper, more akin to an archetype. It sets up this argument in the first stanza where MacEwen writes “This land like a mirror turns you inward / And you become a forest in a furtive lake; “ which suggest a few possible readings. There are the pines fallen into the water, or if you prefer, the reflections of pines cast upon the water, but then, by extension, there are also the pines we see reflected within our minds which are pure image. A representation of the world outside ourselves.

But unlike mimesis, or mere correspondence, these images are also the essence of what they represent. It is this quality, the idea that images touch upon some special inherited knowledge deep within our minds, that MacEwen interrogates in the poem’s conclusion when she writes ”There is something down there and you want it told.”

Donald Hall basically sets out this case in a brief essay entitled “Notes on the Image: Body and Soul” where he says “’Spirit and image’ meant ‘ soul and body.’ But ‘image’ has come to mean precisely not-body, not-X, because the image is an imitation or a copy of X. From a copy or representation of a thing, the word can then move to mean the essence of a thing; therefore ‘ image’ comes to mean ‘spirit,’ which began by being its opposite”(143).

I suppose this is why imagery is such a tricky thing to talk about since our definitions of what images are and what they do often break down upon closer inspection. Images interject themselves between the world out there and the mind’s capacity to ascertain our experience of that world.

Words may make up the sinews of our language, but imagery is most definitely its spirit.

Perhaps this is why poetic imagery and memory are so closely linked for poets as they both represent a kind of eddying thought, sustaining energy. On the one hand, they describe things and phenomena, i.e. objecthood, but they also mean something beyond themselves—or, at the very least, there is a nagging feeling they do because of their recurrent nature.

Just as memories, the ones we discard and the ones we keep, define our identities--our sense of who we think we are, as friends, lovers, sons, brothers--so do the sundry images that make it into our poems define how those poems look out upon the world.

Despite these trace similarities, imagery and memory are not exactly alike either for there are important distinctions to be made. In an essay called “Image and Emblem”, the American poet Stanley Plumly tasks himself with just such a critical exegesis:

The image, as form and idea, is not interested in the rhetoric of the past or even in the mimesis of memory; it wants to be new knowledge, it wants to penetrate the future—it wants, at the very least, to be the memory of memory. That is why its preferred medium is space rather than time: the whole point of the figure is to try to ascend the limitations of the linear—that unbending line of direct communication with the past—and move into the focus of the singular, kinetic moment when the truth and the shape of truth are all true at once. (214)

I like that phrase ‘the memory of memory’ because it pinpoints for me what imagery is supposed to do in a poem. It reveals something within ourselves, whether that be a special set of associations or correspondences or new knowledge as Plumly suggests, but interestingly enough in the best poems what it reveals changes with each reading. In this respect, I think poetic imagery most resembles archetypes.

This is the reason why when we read a poem about someone’s specific life experiences regardless of the subject matter, if the imagery is doing its job, what we take away from it is a strong feeling that although the images may be startlingly fresh, untried, revivifying, there is conversely something ancient, familiar and recognizable which makes the poem true. In another one of his essays “Autobiography and Archetype”, Stanley Plumly acknowledges this ambiguity when he writes: “Archetype is the machinery through which autobiography achieves something larger than the single life; and autobiography is the means by which archetypes are renewed”(154).

I think this is what MacEwen’s poem “Dark Pines Under Water” is addressing when she places the focus not on her own named experience but that of “the dark pines” appearing in the minds of her readers as they read her poem, leaving them to puzzle out the koan-like last line: “There is something down there and you want it told.”

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Falling in Love with Poetry: A Bird’s-eye View

(The essay below is one I wrote for the Summer/Fall edition of The New Quarterly (number 91) in 2004 as part of their "Falling in Love with Poetry" essay series. I was going through my bookcases and came across my copy of The New Quarterly and thought it was high time to revisit this essay. Enjoy!)

As I sit at my desk writing about poetry, that befuddling word which contains so much territory—so many untranslatable thoughts, ideas, and emotions which I still don’t have any proper definition of—I look out my window at a couple of small birds. They are swooping in and out of a metal grate, up near the roof, on the side of my neighbour’s house. They are feeding their young, whom I cannot see, but I do hear, as they chatter incessantly, from morning until night. The parents are swooping in and out of the grate, attending to the hungry mouths within, but when they are not feeding their babies, they are sitting on the side-mirror of my car, staring up at the grate. This strikes me as a particular satisfying metaphor for a discussion of poetry: for poetry is the world you see and the world you don’t, the one that is visible and the one, although hidden, which calls out to you.

I write upstairs in my one and a half-storey brick house, mostly on computer, but I do carry a notebook with me, mainly to record titles and ideas for poems, or the blessed few stray lines which come to me fully formed and intact. I write mainly in the morning, tinkering with words anywhere for two to five hours a day, depending on how well a poem is working, or how obsessed I am with the idea of finishing a particular piece. As I am a teacher by profession, I write on weekends during the school year and nearly everyday of my summer holidays. I don’t get much writing accomplished during the school year because teenagers, on the whole, are what I would term “energy vampires”. This is an irrefutable fact. Any high-school teacher will tell you so. I do, however, write extensively over the summer months because they offer two things to my mind that I feel are essential to any poet: time to think and, perhaps more importantly, time to read.

Like many, I began writing poetry in high school at a time when I had already moved several times across Ontario and I was feeling, as many teenagers do, rather jaded, disconnected and out of sorts. My family was living in Stayner, and my growing sense of myself was deeply at odds with my rural surroundings, which consisted mainly of hockey booster club punch-ups, country and western truck dances, and marathon bush parties. But it was there in a high-school classroom where I was first introduced to poetry by the way of an NFB film on the Canadian poet Earle Birney. My first impression of Birney was that he was rather old, and I honestly don’t recall paying too much attention to what he was saying, until he started to read. It was the reading that caught my interest. It was this voice that came from him, and from beyond him, what the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has coined the other voice. Whatever its name, there was something about the quality of Birney’s voice, as much as the content of his poems, that strongly resonated with me as a teenager. I began to seek out other Canadian poets; specifically those few poets I found in my tiny high school library, poets like Layton, Cohen, and Atwood, and not surprisingly, I was soon writing my own poems.

Later I moved to Guelph, where I wrote a great number of bad poems and read them rabbit-scared at open mike nights on campus. After a few years of scribbling poems furiously, I moved to Montreal to do a Master’s degree at Concordia University. There I ran smack dab into the red pen of Gary Geddes who taught me a great deal about the study of poetry, and my own limitations as a poet. My poems were still not very good but they were getting better. Knowing my poems were still not very good, however, was a hard sobering lesson, one I imagine all young poets have to face up to eventually, if they are to get better. For me, at that time, I could hear what all poets hear—that dark personal music percolating up from within, what the poet Dennis Lee has called cadence or “the living flux that poems rise out of” (31)—but somehow I could not transmute it into words, or at least, the right words yet.

What’s changed the most for me in these past twenty years is my overall dedication to the writing of poetry. I read more widely and more carefully. If my skills have grown, it is because I have become more intuitive and patient over the years. I certainly have a stronger sense of craft, of what craft is, but I also write more honestly about my life. If I had to characterize my own writing, I would say I write predominantly in three distinct veins: the personal lyric, the narrative, and the meditational modes. Simply put, I write lyric poems to express complex emotional situations; narrative poems to explore an idea, or a feeling (spinning a good yarn while I’m at it, I hope); and meditational poems to ask hard questions of my surroundings. But all of my poetry, in one form or another, is really just an attempt by me to come to a closer understanding of my life—to hear, in my own words, that other voice I first heard back in a high school classroom years ago.

Octavio Paz said, “Poetry sings of what is happening; its function is to give form to everyday life and make it visible. I do not claim that this is its only mission, although it is the oldest, most permanent, and most universal one” (133). Other poets may write for other reasons, but this is certainly why I write poetry. So let me perhaps leave off with the few words of advice that I have gleaned over the course of two decades of writing, and rewriting poetry. Reading a wide swath of poets and poetry is essential to becoming a better poet, as is a knowledge of formal technique, but I won’t say it is everything. A poem should not just be a ransacking of words. A good poem, if it is a good poem, may use assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme in considerable ways, yet these are only the joists propping up a poem’s deeper emotional or ideological centre. Where exactly this centre lies is often unknown, or at least shifting, which leads me back to those little chattering birds outside my window.

As a poet, I am constantly trying to articulate what lies just outside on the periphery of vision; to put into words the world I see and the one I hear—that place where the other voice resides. And perhaps it is this seeking, as much as any amount of reading, or study of craft, that has taught me the most of what I know of poetry today. As Paz states: “All poets in the moments, long or short, of poetry, if they are really poets, hear the other voice. It is their own, someone else’s, no one else’s, no one’s, everyone’s. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but those moments—rare yet frequent—in which, being themselves, they are the other” (151).

Further Reading

Dennis Lee. “Poetry and Unknowing” in Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays and Interviews edited by Tim Liliburn (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1995).

Octavio Paz. The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ansel Adams “Moonrise, Hernandez”

The Only Picture of Hernandez, New Mexico
in the Smithsonian Institute

A man and his son driving on Highway 84, a two lane black-top
thirty miles from Sante Fe, pull over onto the shoulder, noticing
the moon’s face poised over the snow-capped Truchas mountains;

the darkness falling over the tree-lined banks of the Rio Chama
flowing down to meet the Rio Grande, the smell of sage, burning
pinion, its woodsy fragrance, rising from the chimneys of houses

in a village sitting beside a church, a graveyard full of white crosses.
He sets up his tripod on the roof of his car, the light failing him
so he must work quickly, fumbling with lens filters, film holders,

all the variables and unknowns, estimating the moon’s luminosity,
exposure times, shutter speeds, while shadows consume the daylight
where the adobe church, a monument, stands illuminated at dusk

glowing from within. The white crosses flush, no longer ornaments
but part of the spirit’s nomenclature. Heaven and Earth conjoin
at the back of the man’s retina, a cloudbank hovering magisterially

as he snaps the photograph trying to pull back the shutter again,
but the light changes, the impetus fades, and the world is suddenly
only the world again. Weeks later, he improvises in his darkroom

half-tones of feeling, dodging and burning in areas, making the sky
endlessly dark, the sagebrush a mural of silver, the village empty
as in a child’s dream. He uses sleight of hand to extract a confession

from the land, teasing out light and darkness, so it speaks quietly,
poignantly, like a revelation. Nothing is forever but looking deeply
at the world, as it was made over fifty years ago, through a lens

ministers to man’s hope for redemption although none is coming,
for the man who took this picture has gone into those mountains
so completely he has become them. Who knows if a town existed,

or if anyone had ever lived there, until in the darkness of his room
he placed the moon to look over it, light moving through the crosses,
making us believe, if for a time, it is possible to outlast the night.

By Chris Banks