Images are the heart of poetry. And this is not tricks. Images come from the unconscious. Imagination and the unconscious are one and the same. You’re not a poet without imagery. – Anne Sexton
Poetry and personal mythology encourage us to create and enter our own images. Mythic images help us organize our experiences, our behavior, our thoughts and perceptions into the patterns of story that we refer to again and again. Images, whether we create them or inherit them, shape our ideas. And imagination, the ability make images, is how we call things into being.
An image is something that evokes a vivid sensory presence, a concreteness, something we can recognize and name. (A tree, a crossroads, an egg in the grass beside a cemetery wall, a rusted wheelbarrow filling with rainwater.) If the image is written in a poem or a story, it is constructed with words. If in a myth, a dream or a movie, the image writes itself into us primarily through vision.
Images bridge the space between the universal and the individual, the intangible and the solid, inner and outer, the waking and dream worlds. Images make connections that transcend language and surprise us with their spontaneity and their revelations. In closing distances, the image can also make broken things whole again.
In poetry, telling what needs to be told through the image keeps us from language that is abstract, vague, stale, clichéd or sentimental. It condenses and intensifies our language and our experience.
Employing the image is an expression of bravery – we must trust the image to convey what we have felt, or want others to feel. The strength of the image lies in its objectivity and integrity. It stands on its own. When we rely on the image, we’re letting some of our own subconscious (which provides the image) speak directly to the receptiveness of our audience, rather than trying to manipulate readers or lead them along.
Images have a life of their own, a concrete clarity that might speak shades of meaning slightly different from one reader to the next, but that’s where the magic happens. Each person brings his or her own perceptions to bear on the image you create and, in a way, meets you and your poem halfway. In bridging that vast space between their imagination and your own, the image requires participation and movement from both sides.
What is an image? It’s the pull-toy that pulls you, takes you from one place to another. – Lynda Barry
Metaphor is related to image and to imagination – it’s how we understand or describe one thing in terms of something else. (The word literally means “to transfer” – when we use a metaphor, we move the qualities of one thing to apply to something else.) “All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare, master of the metaphor. “And all the men and women merely players / They have their exits and their entrances / And one man in his time plays many parts.” Elaborate parallels can be drawn, entire stories spun out entirely in extended metaphor.
We can also use mythic images as metaphors, transferring the qualities of a mythic figure to ourselves. For better or for worse, the images we apply to ourselves largely define our personal mythology. Do you see yourself as an artist? A leader? A victim? A loner?
* Create an image and then enter it. What does it mean to inhabit a created inner space? How comfortable are you in there?
* As an exercise in trust, write a poem that begins and ends with the same image. Let your image change itself or remain the same, without your forcing it either way.
* Make an image out of something intangible: what is the image of your greatest passion? Your courage? Your fear? What about your heart: is it a great red hound, a low fireplace, a locked vault, a water lily, an empty pew? Experiment with unlikely metaphors.
* Write a poem that bridges some kind of distance using only images – be sparing with your adjectives, and make no attempt to provide interpretation or direction for your readers.
* Write a poem that encapsulates your world view in a single metaphor. Use Shakespeare’s opening line as your own and fill in the blank: “All the world’s a _________.” Go for as long as the image you choose takes you, and don’t force it. If you only get a few lines in or feel stuck, try a different metaphor.
* Choose an object that came to you in a dream, any dream. Put it into a poem with an object from the room you’re sitting in right now. Format the poem however works best: as a dialogue, an argument, a love affair. Or, create a third object from their intersection.
* Extra credit: can you make an image from the translation of your name? If you don’t know it already, look up the etymology of your first and last names, put them together and see what happens. (Mine is Jennifer Bradley, which becomes something like “pale phantom in a broad meadow.” My father’s was “God judges him in a broad meadow.” My mother’s works out to “bitter pledge.” Her mother was a “magical bird.”) What can you do with your name-image?