The “image” as an emotional and intellectual complex

“An “image” is an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time… It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” -Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect”


In “A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts”, Pound discusses a lot of rules he views as vital to the writing of poetry, many of which are prohibitive in nature—to avoid abstractions, to ornament only when necessary, to make it “free of emotional slither”— and paraphrases these throughout the essay like dogma. These, of course, are NOT dogma according to Pound. Pound’s definition of image is cosmic to me, so omnipotent and nebulous, that for me it almost contradicts his steadfast rules about form and style. The concept of an image existing as a complex in an instant of time is something so metaphysical that I have trouble assigning rules to it in an attempt to recreate it. Do we as poets have enough agency and power over the natural world to think that rules about form, rhythm, and rhyme can lead to the creation of this elusive but important moment?


Of course, Pound’s recommendations for poets are useful and ring true with many of the techniques I’ve already learned about poetry—but we must be careful to understand that perhaps conventions and understandings of the image differ from writer to writer and from school to school, and realize it takes a lot of gall to claim supremacy over the Image.

The Painter and the Landscape

Pound writes, “…remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it.” This line stood out to me because I know that it’s something I have to work on in my writing – my poems tend to be ‘tell’ heavy, with less  ‘show,’ which is something I’ve been more and more aware of recently. (Having to find an image heavy poem I had for class today was pretty challenging).

However, I did disagree with part of what he had to say here.  Does the painter really know more about the landscape than a poet? Aren’t we also describing landscapes with our images? Granted, we’re not painting the whole landscape, we’re crafting an image that describes the landscape. But that seems to have the same end goal that Pound intended.

I’m grappling with the very specific wording in the example Pound supplied that probably doesn’t matter too much, but like an image in a poem, the details tend to be important. I suppose this is something I’ll be working with in our class this semester – which, and how many, details to give to create rest of the landscape in the images of the readers.

The Proper and Perfect Symbol

Pound spends only a sentence discussing symbols in the Credo section of “A Few Dont’s,” but his direction that “if a man use ‘symbols’ he must use them so that their symbolic function does not obtrude” was something I spent a while thinking about, both in agreement with Pound in the necessity for symbols that function as well at face value as they do in representing something else, and in doubt of his “proper and perfect” solution to the obtruding function being the “natural object.” Letting a symbol’s representative function supersede its literal role in a poem is something that I myself am guilty of having done, so I think that Pound’s encouragement to balance the two is justified. A warning to avoid the reverse situation would have been equally valid too; not elaborating enough on a symbol to make clear that it is in fact representative of something can leave a poem with dead weight that never comes to mean anything.
Pound’s use of “the natural object” as the proper and perfect symbol” to solve to unmatched literal and symbolic functions, however, did not strike me as the catch-all solution he writes it as. The person who Pound describes, to whom “a hawk is a hawk,” probably does not exist. I understand that Pound means that symbols should function in the poem equally well for the experienced reader as they do for someone for whom the symbol is just an object with no connotations, but I don’t think it would be easy to find a person who carries no connotations with a natural object – chances are that any natural object that Pound could choose has the possibility of being misconstrued by someone whose personal experiences or enculturation give them a different understanding of that object. There is also the issue of Pound’s suggestion being on the vague side – what exactly is “the natural object?” I tend to think of natural objects as being the things you find in a forest, but Pound gives us no qualifiers, which makes locating the natural object difficult.

Poetry – a Foreign Language

Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause.

Naturally, your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning…

The Musician can rely on pitch and the volume of the orchestra. You can not. The term harmony is misapplied in poetry; it refers to simultaneous sounds of different pitch…

I was surprised to see Pound make so many parallels between different aspects of music and poetry, and the more I read, the more I realized that a major reason why poetry seems to foreign to me is that I can’t say I get poetic rhythm. I am familiar with musical rhythm, what I like and don’t like when it comes to music, but with poetry, it’s hard for me to decide what I like and don’t like. I don’t know what Pound means when he says “catch the rise of the rhythm wave,” or how rhythmic structure can “destroy the shape of your words” (does this simply mean putting words together that don’t sound good together?). I don’t where the line between “good abstract” and “bad abstract” is (I get the idea that being specific is always best, but my impression of a lot of poetry is that they are still abstract even if they use specific imageries, because the specific imageries are linked together in a very abstract way, and I often still end up feeling lost).  I like to read things I understand – most of the time I feel as if there is at least 70% of the poem I don’t understand. Images are important to ground me in a poem and to make a poem more relatable; images also tend to tell more stories than words. I have to say, I blame mostly myself for it, because I read very little poetry. That is probably why I do not speak the language.


Deviating from the Flowery & Honing Sounds

After reading Ezra Pound’s essay, ‘”A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts,”‘ on poetic theory, I’m compelled and frightened by whatever poetry has to offer me, specifically in terms of getting to the point. As a writer who basks in prose, I find the idea of shedding description to create an image intimidating. But although this may be the case, while reading Pound’s ideas and critiques on what poetry should do, I started to realized how much I am willing to improve in my own writing and that what I’m going to learn is going to help with my lyric essays. Because why would you flower something that doesn’t watering? Ideas can stand for themselves and people can interpret them in any way, regardless of the jargon we want to add. A picture is worth a thousand words and so does a word, or phrase if you look at it closely enough.

But although I was touched by the remark brevity, what moved me the most was Pound’s emphasis on rhythm and sound. Even the way Pound articulated himself drew me into the ideas he was elucidating: “Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave.” After reading that line, I took note of how a poem has the potential to transport you to a whole new field of emotions. Pound offered tips on how to make music of your thoughts, “A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure,” and I started thinking of the particularities in how emotions and thoughts sounded like. How could you put that on paper?

Needless to say, ‘”A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts”‘ has sparked my interest in the transformations to come.

In Response to Pound

Often times, I need to remind myself that poetry and prose are “fruit of the same tree” to be completely cliché. That is, both are forms of writing with the potential of overlap, should the writer wish to do so. Imagery seems to be the greatest connecting the force that allows the writer to create a sort of inner world in a poem the same way one would do in a work of creative prose: “Good prose will do you no harm, and there is good discipline to be had trying to write it” (Pounds).

It’s difficult for me to put into words how I feel about any form of writing. The only explanation I can give is this: Sometimes, I go into my head, where there is my own world that I know more than the world outside.” That is what I like about writing prose—I have more room to create the world and take what’s in my head and put it on the page. Imagery is what allows me to do this—I think in pictures to explain the abstract, using what I know from prose (e.g. precise details that form a full picture in the reader’s mind), and trying to place it in my poetry, which is why my poetry tends to be more structured, telling a story, rather than being abstract.

Making it New

Ezra Pound’s emphasis on the “Image” in poetry seems to border on idolatry. Much of my own poetry in the past has spent a great deal of time on abstractions, which I think is one of its shortcomings. Concrete imagery, as well as writing only what one means and connecting every word one writes into the poem are what make a poem noteworthy. Pound writes that “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” As poets, we strive to leave with our readers an impression of emotion, because they’re never going to remember individual words or an expertly placed line break. The music of the poem aids in the reverberation of the images we present, but I think Pound holds the “Image” in such high regard because it is what bridges the emotion of the piece from poet to reader.

Taking on the task of representing grand abstractions is, I think, better left for pop song writers. I’ve tried in the past to write about time and love and beauty and colonization, but instead of presenting these concepts through images like Pound might have me do, I have attempted to make them universal by allowing them to remain abstract. However, individual experiences and specific events, as I am coming to understand more and more, are themselves universal and relatable.

Pound is also often quoted for his piece of advice: “make it new.” Emotions and discoveries have been felt and found before, so when we recycle our images into poetry, we might strive to aim for a freshly specific spin on our (collective) experience.

“[20th centaury poetry] will be as much like granite as it can be.”

Pound talks about rocks, but I’m not sure if he would have liked geology. Geology is not an instantaneous science, and if he tried to describe a rock outcrop by only using “[his] intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” he’d be missing much of the story. Geology takes time, context, and observation, which are all things that Pound doesn’t seem to prioritize.

Imagery, I think, uses those tools of time, context, and observation just as much as it uses an “intellectual and emotional complex.”  As a writer, I sometimes find myself trying to observe things from only one perspective, but, as a geologist, I find myself going at a problem from different angles. I think that creating good imagery, might be a bit like creating good science. It need observations to get it started and more observations to get it going. Imagery needs questions, and the creativity to answer them. Imagery can, but doesn’t need to, be the static instant that Pound describes.

I say this, because poetry shouldn’t just be “as much like granite as it can be,” because not everything that looks like granite is. There are granitic rocks, that don’t have the right percentages of quartz, alkali feldspar, and plagioclase to be, what petrologists call, granite. There are “black granite countertops” sold from home improvement stores, that most likely are not actually made of granite. If I am to be accurate writer, I want to work towards something other than writing that is “as much like granite as it can be.” I want to work towards imagery that uses context and nit-picky observation to show a reader what is happening both on the surface of the image and within the image itself. I want to approach writing, not only as a writer but also as a scientist.

Pound’s Essay

Pounds essay was thought provoking. Since I’ve come to understand poetry as more than therapy, I agree with most of his points. I was excited when reading his thoughts about what an image presents: “liberation” and “sudden growth,” because it’s strange to think about either of those treasures as immediate, when so often it seems people search for both their entire life. My intrigue with the essay continued, but there were some points I thought could be argued. There is the issue of his statement “No man ever writes very much poetry that ‘matters’,” which was followed by a deeper, yet vague explanation. It seems that Pound has forgotten about the various forms of poetry that take place around the world, and because of that I have to disagree with him. In the music industry there is much poetry that matters and is changing the world as we speak. And in our history there have been men who produced poetry that created revolutions, even Gods.  Either Pound’s standards are too high, too low, or I’m interpreting his statement incorrectly.

However, I agree with Pound’s mentioned principles for writing poems. Specifically, number two: To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation. I share his belief that to create a successful image in a poem, one must make sure to be concise and to exclude words which are products of overthinking, grammar precision and specific description.  And instead let the poem and the poet’s emotions dictate the words that need to be used.

It is important to create an image specific to the poet’s intent; watching word usage is one of the contributors to the success of an image. Images are important in poetry. They allow individuals to share a very unique perspective with one another and to perhaps influence their audience or fellow poets with that perspective/image. It is one of the most intimate ways to communicate.