On Writing

On imagery in poetry

Otto Magus, CC BY-NC

One thing bursts out of another. Christine Brooke-Rose, in A Grammar of Metaphor (1958), called it the genitive link. When Ballarat regional poet Nathan Curnow begins his poem The Lighthouse with,

nuns are eating plastic bags
their cathedral has rolled down the hill
it’s a dinner party with a touch of cancer
what the tongue magnifies in the mouth
they tried storming the lighthouse again last night
they plan to fill it with animal pairs
the world is burning like a hoarder house fire …

What are we to make of these lines where one thing bursts out of another? There are images here half inserted into each other, or strangely juxtaposed: nuns and the plague of plastic, cathedral and vehicle out of control, party and cancer, lighthouse and ark, world fire and house fire.

Nathan Curnow is a poet close to the Bible and close to the rhetoric of the evangelicals, but with that touch of ambivalence that mixes his disgust with delight. The poem revels in its imagery, and the whole book that this poem comes from is bristling with imagery.

If we know pretty well what larger institution the nuns and the cathedral stand for (metonymically), it’s not entirely clear what the tongue might stand for, or for that matter why a lighthouse might come to be an ark except perhaps through an obscure pun on the arc of its beam.

The dinner party with a touch of cancer might be the perfectly cruel portrait of our contemporary middle classes, and that the world might be burning like a hoarder’s house is a simile that doesn’t stretch the imagination too far before we nod our heads to its observation.

Curnow’s poem opening is a mix of the complex, the simple, the obscure, the suggestive and the obvious when it comes to imagery. The poem is, I think, meant to dazzle, spark and fizz in the mind, and (I suppose) not quite cohere, though we do see that each image is one of malformation, of things gone wrong round the edges or even fundamentally wrong, possibly catastrophically wrong.

It is, as much poetry is these days, a poem of crisis.

Even the imagery is operating (failing?) this way, as each image is broken off at a line ending and the next one starts in hope of making sense. Just as desire can be heightened by jealousy, just as a dying poet suddenly produces three or four new books, just as a wish granted leads us to making even more outlandish wishes (or regretting all wishes), this poetry’s energy and verve might be symptomatic of the climate crisis that will be too catastrophic even for the poets to want to spend their time making from it one thing that bursts out of another.

Theologians still write of two kinds of knowledge (they must, they have no choice): katophasis and apophasis. Kataphatic knowledge is that knowledge we find in textbooks, treatises, self-help manuals and all over the internet.

Apophatic knowledge is said to begin where language flounders. This is the kind of knowledge we “get” only through experience, faith, insight spiritual awakening, through existing however briefly somewhere in-between, in passivity and darkness, somewhere beyond all those fine distinctions that language is so adept at making.

Poetry works at tipping language in its natural direction, towards the unsayable, the apophatic. The route to this place seems to be through imagery. Poetry turns language back from generalised abstract sophistication to a more primitive, but more human, physical world of images. The odd thing is that poetry does this not by picking up actual stones, by diving into actual whales’ bellies or taking us on actual tours of actual lighthouses, but rather with its katophatic nemesis, language.

Despite being language-based, poetic imagery in the lyric tradition is essentially visual. Images burst out of the linear procession of words; it’s not so much that we are asked to think in pictures, as to picture thinking. Freud was one who understood how uncannily intertwined language is with picture-making, and how the visual inhabits the verbal in the mind.

When Anne Sexton wrote in Making a Living, from The Death Notebooks (1974):

Jonah made his living
inside the belly

We have an image that recollects the core event of his biblical story, but also what seems to be a joke and an observation, a tone of voice that treats Jonah’s destination as a career move. And what a career move!

This, I guess, is doing what language can do with an image – confound it with description, comment, revision, critique and attitude at just the moment of calling it up. You get so much happening at once that it is difficult to untangle exactly what is going on. You sense its fullness.

And then there are those moments when one thing really does burst out of another, and poetry throws up for us an exquisite association of image and idea that has some kind of purity and stillness: as Jonah sat in that whale trying to think of a way to profit from his experience,

little fish swam by his nose
and he noted them and touched their slime.
Plankton came and he held them in his palm
like God’s littlest light bulbs.