Poetry and The Living Image


An image properly conjured by a poet is alive. The poetic image confirms and affirms something the reader already knows and believes. This kind of living image renews the spirit, sealing the truth of all past experience in heart and mind. There is nothing cheap, no flimflammery, no flash in the pan for a turn of phrase that might ring in the ear but fall flat in the mind.

True poetic images are like bread and wine. Simple and powerful, eternal symbols of life and joy only a real poet can reawaken in us. They are associative, which for me is the height of sound poetic logic. Poetic thinking embraces the mysterious procreation found in metaphor and simile: one thing begets a second, and the second is often so unlike the first that one is surprised and delighted to find it was such a smooth leap. Take Pound’s classic two-liner, “In A Station of the Metro:”

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

For those who know the lines off and ride public transportation, I ask you—can you ever see anything but a multitude of many-colored petals floating before you? The image is almost cinematic, a director might fade from a spring day filled with every shade of blossom against dark branches and deep green grass into the many faces of a crowded subway. We accept the logic because we know in our reader’s heart, in our hyper-cinematic mind, that the image is true.

My mind floats from spring to fall, thinking of Afaa Weaver’s “Ego:”

God’s voice
is caught in

the crackling commotion

of thought,

like dried leaves—


I wonder if one needs to believe in a god to experience the truth in the poem. Our egos, so loud and so fragile, keeping out whatever voices might heal us and save us from the tyranny of our selves. My feet kick through piles of fallen leaves, and the poet’s truth comes back to me in this image. I think it unwise to say too much about a short poem that speaks so much for itself. Walking turns to a meditation on the difficulties of becoming, all because one poet set before our eyes a living image.  

Richard Wilbur’s “Two Quatrains for First Frost” holds another living image of autumn. Summer exhausted, “the leaves now read / Like a love-letter that is no longer meant.” How could I ever see a green leaf gone to autumn’s russets the same again? The line is not merely a turn of phrase, privileging some quixotic image over making sense. Wilbur’s phrase enchants because it is at once whimsical and totally sound. Yes, we say, summer meant every word of love she said when the leaves were their thickest, brightest greens. We know this to be the case. But of course, in the end, she was never the perfect paramour of her letters. But in Spring when the first frost was distant, we awaited the first buds, gasping as each opened like a pink envelope in the trees. Each year we are dupes, and we are delighted. So what if summer never meant a word of it? Better to have loved and lost, affirms the poet. We believe him. We’ve had the experience, or can image it. We sense truth.

Rilke fills his poems with images that seal our knowledge or experience. When was the last time I walked into a house of worship and did not recall his lines about churches where “God / is imprisoned and lamented / like a trapped and wounded animal.” Poetry’s art of image is wedded to its power of concision. In so few words, he leads one down a strange line of thought. Humans have diminished some wild power, ill-treating and depriving it of its natural being. And isn’t this all too true? We know that man will abuse what appears to threaten him, what he does not understand, and what he fears he can not control. We are species so practiced in cruelty not even God escapes our oppression and our exploitation. Even when I hated God the most, I felt some compulsion to run to the nearest church and set him free after reading this poem. I pity the pinioned spirit.

What forces conspire to gift a poet images animated by such realities as these? What conditions are required for the muses to grab the pen from the poet’s hand? The maturity of the spirit, which has very little to do with age, and reverence for the craftwork, which forgets that art is a game played by the many and won by the few. Silence, too, and the humility to surrender the conscious mind, which may produce poems for posterity, or not. Finally, breathing as free beings, unmoored from dogmas and agendas, which is a feat most humans will not achieve in this lifetime. In short, poets who are able to call forth these images that remind you of a truth you’ve somehow known all your life are artists, not ideologues. They are a mad people, no matter how respectable their clerk hours or their postal routes appear. They are the souls willing to lay something down so that we might pick up a poem and remember a little something of what it means to be alive.

Alexandra Barylski was born to beauty and the love of nature, inheriting from her parents—a gardener and artist—an abiding attention to detail, craftsmanship, and the life of the word. She holds a Masters of Art and Religion from Yale, where she studied under former POETRY editor, Christian Wiman. She is the The Managing Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, an award-winning poet, and an experienced educator, and a personal writing and communications coach for teen girls.