Images and Ideas in Poems

Last week my poetry class was talking about images and ideas in poems, which has me thinking about how poets work with ideas. Images can be anything seen, felt, smelled, heard, tasted, or even imagined. So a subatomic particle, if visualized concretely in a poem, might be seen as an image. The airflow around the wing of a plane might become a tactile image in the right hands. Ideas and images, aren’t separate things, but are joined at the hip, to rephrase William Carlos Williams’ famous dictum: “No ideas but in things.” This makes me wonder: which comes first, the idea or the thing? The chicken or its egg? Which is the chicken, after all? And where’s the darned wheelbarrow.

I’ve also been reading my good friend Anna Leahy’s book Constituents of Matter, and one of the things that strikes me about her poetry is how often she breaks that old rule — show don’t tell.

Well, maybe she doesn’t break it, but she warps it a little. There are all kinds of abstract concepts, scientific theories, philosophy, terms like photon, particle, and wave, that to the average human are abstract concepts that can’t be visualized, yet in Anna’s poems come across as concrete, sometimes when paired with a striking image, such as Marie Curie holding a glowing test tube and doctoring her husband’s hands. We know the story well enough to need only a few brush strokes to get the picture. I’ve always bristled a little when told (or when I have to tell students) to avoid abstract language — surely any language can be used in a poem, and Anna shows this to be true, though arguably her use of terms normally considered abstract is in fact concrete.

No wonder Air and Space Magazine featured three of her poems for their website this past April. For most poets, I would guess, a poem can happen either way. You might start with an idea you want to get across and look for images that might convey it to the reader. Or you might be moved by images and attempt to discover the idea behind them. Either way, I doubt most poets know exactly where they’re headed when they begin drafting a poem. If there’s an idea at the outset, it only takes shape as the images coalesce around it. If the image starts the poem, the idea begins to form as images and language accumulate. Sometimes it is just a fascination with a word or phrase that starts the poem out, after all. Some poets may know what they want to say before they sit down to write, but I suspect many are searching for answers as they write. In this sense, the poem is like an essay: a trial, a hypothesis. As the poet refines and polishes the poem, the truth of the idea crystalizes until it is clear, at least to the poet. When finished, the poem represents a truth that can be said, at least until the next poem, which may attack the issue from another angle and try out a different aspect of that truth. Some poets search for deep truths in their poems, others are more filled with a ludic, playful quality, daring to see what they can get away with, how far they can stretch language or the truth. Sometimes it is precisely through the ludic, joking play with language that the most striking image combinations arise and the most challenging truths are revealed. What most of my favorite poems, including those in Constituents of Matter, share is this quality of discovering a truth in the process of writing and reading.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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