Thursday, April 30, 2020

Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Imagery

Day 4: Imagery


Today we examine the importance of the lyrical-narrative poem's imagery that allows the reader to see the action and characters in the mind's eye, rather than simply hear the poet talk about them.



The first horse I ever saw
  was hauling a wagon stacked with furniture
    past storefronts along Knickerbocker Avenue.
He was taller than a car, blue-black with flies,

and bits of green ribbon tied to his mane
  bounced near his caked and rheumy eyes.
    I had seen horses in books before, but
this horse shimmered in the Brooklyn noon.

I could hear his hooves strike the tar,
  the colossal nostrils snort back the heat,
    and breathe his inexorable, dung-tinged fume.
Under the enormous belly, his ------

swung like the policeman's nightstick,
  a dowsing rod, longer than my arm--
    even the Catholic girls could see it
hung there like a rubber spigot.

When he let loose, the steaming street
  flowed with frothy, spattering urine.
    And when he stopped to let the junkman
toss a tabletop onto the wagon bed,

I worked behind his triangular head
  to touch his foreleg above the knee,
    the muscle jerking the mat of hair.
Horse, I remember thinking,

four years old and standing there,
  struck momentarily dumb,
    while the power gathered in his thigh
surged like language into my thumb.

By Michael Waters. From Parthenopi: New and Selected Poems (BOA, 2001)


Sight, sound, touch, hearing--there is not a line in "Horses" that does not utilize one or more of those senses. This poem lives in the world of sensate experience through its vivid images composed of concrete language. And yet, by the poem's end the reader is exposed to an abstract truth about poetry itself--something to do with the power of image and language and how they affected a little boy to become a poet because they are the basis of poetry itself. But if the poem had stated that truth using those or other abstract terms, the poem would be telling us in a way that countless weaker poems do. Instead, Waters shows us how the experience of a horse was the basis of his becoming a poet in those final lines (still grounded in the concrete): "while the power gathered in his thigh / surged like language into my thumb." The only abstract word in these lines (and one of the few in the poem) is "language," and yet even it lives in two worlds at once, evidenced by the words you're reading on this screen that can be printed on paper.

In addition, notice how many of Waters' lines accomplish their purpose with few or no adjectives or other modifiers--instead, lot of nouns and verbs, the bones and muscles of language. Very little connective tissue is present. This enables readers to "see" pictures in their minds. You can't really see anything except nouns and verbs--people, places, and things, doing something, acting on something, or being acted upon.

I happen to know Michael Waters. And I know that he underwent a major shift early on in his understanding of how to approach writing a poem. In his early twenties, he thought the best way to create a poem was to begin with an idea for a poem, and then to let that idea guide where the poem went. After his first book, he discovered that a better way was to begin with language itself--a word, a line, a few lines--and then to allow that language to go where it seemed it wanted to go. To give language its head--pun intended. Ever since, Waters' poetry has lived in the concrete, but in so doing has discovered timeless truths--a prosody that has produced, in my opinion, some of the best poetry of the second half of the twentieth and first two decades of the twenty-first century. An interview with John Hoppenthaller in which Waters speaks about that change is no longer available online. However, I share portions of it in another blog post while reviewing Waters' book, The Dean of DisciplineHERE.


Write a poem about an animal or object using concrete images in every line. Be sure to remain in the concrete until the very end. Refrain from overtly telling how the object of your affection made you feel or stating some abstract truth. If there is a greater truth in the poem, give yourself permission to use only one abstract word in the final line to point to it. Consult a thesaurus to find concrete words that shape your images so they lean toward that truth, but never state it outright. And remember to use more nouns and verbs and fewer modifiers. Have fun!


Boulevard: Submissions are open until May 1st and include a year's subscription HERE.

2020 Passager Poetry Contest: Deadline is May 10th for this press that only accepts submissions from writers over age 50. Submit HERE.


Sicilian-Inspired Blood Orange Salad

Serves: 4


For the salad:

3 Cara Cara oranges, cut into segments

6 blood oranges, cut into segments

1/4 large red onion, cut as thinly as possible

1 bunch of mint, julienned and a few leaves torn

1/4 cup sheep's milk feta

For the dressing:

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1/3 cup pistachios, lightly crushed

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Assemble all the citrus segments in a large bowl and mix in onions. Set aside.

2. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high. Add the cumin seeds and cook until the seeds pop slightly and a lovely fragrance emits from the pan. Add vinegar to the pan and swirl to mix. Season with salt and pepper and toss all over the citrus. Mix in pistachios. When plating, add mint and pistachios to the tops of each portion.

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