rough seas framed in art
white sand on cool skin touches
our side of the glass
* * *
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Stylized, slick, solo
eternally fixed she sits
in sheen and shadow
In the back of her
mind, a garden of sculptures
lost in seal and stone
Further back a light
breaking through silver and steel
a thousand angels
Thousands of years ago, when we first met, when gods and goddesses laughed and roamed fields of giant clover to the monotonous throb of primeval honeybees, we sat by a secret pond at night. The stars were the same then as they are now, but the constellations were different. You dipped your hand in the water as if to study an undersea plant or fish, and I dove in to do something but then I couldn’t remember what. And when I came up, the constellations had changed into Virgo and Scorpio and big and little dippers. The old cosmos was gone. That quickly a new age had begun, a human age of quiet hunger and missed connections. Dark and silent, we retreated into the ferns and mosses and heavy branches, the moon more lovely and distant than ever, and I felt your hand still wet with the possibilities of that lost moment.
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* * *
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
(William Carlos Williams, 1923)
The first thing readers often notice about Williams’s poem is that it seems so arbitrary – just an arbitrary set of domestic images, with no philosophical propositions, no apparent symbolic referents, no historical context. Just the “thing in itself,” as Williams liked to say. In some other context, a red wheelbarrow may have a practical function, but here the images are stripped of practical value. This is exactly what liberates us to see them through the lens of pure aesthetic wonder. At least that’s the imagist idea.
Formal construction of the poem supports this imagist project. The line structure breaks each substantive unit (wheel / barrow, rain / water, white / chickens) as if to retrain the eye, bringing you through a double-take back to the thing in itself. The one verbal unit – “glazed” – puts it all under a glass coat for aesthetic gaze.
So if that’s the agenda, the question remains, why these images? Why not “the pile of dog / shit / by the black / shovel”? For the imagist, it’s a trick question. The arbitrariness is itself the key. Of all colors, red on white! The arbitrariness gives a fragile sensory beauty that cannot be achieved in more cerebral poetry.
When the poem rips its subject from practical and historical standards of value, you might say it rips away the causal nexus that brought the objects into this configuration. This is where the imagist poem intersects with Jung’s idea of synchronicity. For Jung, there are two modes of assigning value: via causality or via synchronicity. You can explain things by looking at the external string of causes that brought them here, or you can strip away the causal nexus and look at the things in themselves in their unique and arbitrary aspect. The imagist poem focuses through the lens not of causality but of synchronicity.
While I can appreciate the imagist project, I still like to think that I can appreciate the poem on both levels (despite the poet’s intention, as it were). I can place the imagist poem into historical perspective as a countercultural thread within modernism. Key features of modernism – fragmentation, the loss of depth and of transcendental meaning – which may cause paralysis and despair in the poetry of T. S. Eliot or the prose of William Faulkner – are turned by the imagist into a celebration of the arbitrary fragment, of the colliding surfaces themselves. One might in this respect align the fragmented, colliding surfaces of Picasso with the imagist poets, as a counterweight within the angst-ridden modernist movement.
But when the historical placement is done, it’s still nice to go back and bask in the immediacy of the imagist poem. It is, after all, the flash of synchronicity which re-opens a vista for modern Westerners who have in many cases lost the register for that kind of raw, meaningless beauty.
Compare, finally, to the closing lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819):
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Noteworthy is that Keats attributes these lines to the urn itself and not the speaker of the poem. Indeed, the lesson we might apply from the imagist poem is that truth is NOT beauty. “Truth” is the cornerstone of causal thinking. We compare a proposition to the world it references and determine its truth-value. “Beauty,” on the other hand, is the cornerstone of synchronicity. Its value lies in its immediacy. The urn in those final lines tries to marry the two together, but the real poignancy in the Keats ode lies in the fact that that marriage is tenuous. Keats may have already sensed at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. Certainly, in any event, the tension between the mortality of the poet and the immortality of the figures on the urn is an operative force in the poem. The young lovers depicted on the urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart.
The poet has an advantage over the marble figures in that he will feel the human warmth of the kiss, but the cost of this warmth is that he and his beloved will soon wither. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.
The image set in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is like the set of figures on the urn. Its beauty will last, as the poem has lasted for generations, its synchronic value unadulterated by time. But the imagist poem evades the truth of mortality. Or almost evades it. Williams’s first stanza (“So much depends / upon”) suggests a tiny hole in the imagist fabric, an element of urgency, an inkling of time and mortality, a slightest hint of the inexorable truth of causal reality breaking against the edges of its crisp and beautiful synchronicity.
While reading Gertrude Stein’s Ida, it struck me that Stein uses words and phrases like points in a pointillist painting. She also uses all the characters who flutter in and out as such points. I’m not sure whether Ida is herself another such point or the limit to the field of points. Which means if the whole novel is like a beautiful impressionist painting with no causal nexus and no apparent psychological depth – points of light reflected on a surface – who or what is Ida, this strange non-character who seems to have many different possible futures elapsing simultaneously. Is Ida really just another point of light? Is she the reflective surface itself? Or is she the distinguishing threat that always lurks within this type of writing – the threat that imagist writers might lift the veil at any moment and expose a gaping psychological depth, a poignant, pulsing human heart, that they thought they had escaped in the proliferating surfaces of their art?
(Related entries: The Frenchman Robbe-Grillet, A Digression on Abstract Art, The Clown and the Tiger, Impressions of Rachael in Spain and Morocco.)