How Image Functions in the Poetry of James Wright, Robert Hass, and Emily Wilson

Image is one of the more captivating literary devices used by modern poets to create vivid and thought-provoking poems that are both deep and transcendent. Image-making is a useful skill for a poet to acquire because it can do multiple jobs at once: create visual/aesthetic stimulation, hold metaphorical meaning, and enliven poems with uniqueness and personality. What is even more interesting is how each poet goes about incorporating image in poetry—aesthetically, intellectually, politically, and rhetorically. This essay will look at how image functions in the poems of particular poets who engage in the technique wholeheartedly, and how these poets use image as a way to stimulate aesthetic pleasure and encourage the germination of ideas. More specifically, it will explore image in terms of how it operates from a meditative perspective, how it investigates issues of the self that is in constant conversation with the realities of nature and the external world. This essay will examine the work of James Wright, Robert Hass, and Emily Wilson—all of whom work with image in ways that are complex, enlightening, and endlessly engaging.

James Wright is a poet whose work remains valuable to contemporary poetry in the most illuminating ways, particularly the poems in The Branch Will Not Break (1963). They continue to surprise and bring about a sense of Zen-like self-empowerment. They are inward, but do not turn away from the world; the work is full of meditative solitude that takes from nature and the industrial world in ways that are both simple and transcendent. Wright’s most potent power as a poet comes from his ability to fuse compressed images with the personal. For example, “The Jewel” is a gorgeously efficient poem that enacts cherishment of the self. Here it is in its entirety:

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

The voice of the speaker is ungendered and confident, plainspoken and hyperaware. In terms of images pertaining to the physical there is only “my body,” “I stand upright,” and “my bones.” There are also protective spaces such as “cave” and “cloister,” which contrast with sensations that evoke emptiness such as “air,” “silence,” and “the wind.” Along with this nonspecific speaker and images/feelings that resist the senses, there are two big images that work as brilliant contrasts: “blossom of fire” and “dark emeralds.” The “blossom of fire” is protected by the cave, the body, the cloister, and the silence. The bones of the speaker transform into “dark emeralds.”

However, the poem does more than spin around these two images. It also initiates self-empowerment. When the speaker says, “There is this cave / In the air behind my body / That nobody is going to touch” the emphasis falls on “nobody is going to touch.” It is a protective assertion of inner power that comes from the “blossom of fire.” Additionally, when the speaker says, “When I stand upright in the wind, / My bones turn to dark emeralds,” the emphasis falls on “When I stand upright in the wind.” This is also a suggestive assertion: I stand in opposition; I stand against. The power of the poem comes from these two lines: “Nobody is going to touch / When I stand upright in the wind.” They hold the most weight because they come from the speaker’s mental fortitude.

“Two Hangovers” is another poem that explores the image/personal dynamic to great effect. The poem is in two parts and utilizes movement as it shifts from image to image, particularly in the first part of the poem:

Number One

I slouch in bed.
Beyond the streaked trees of my window,
All groves are bare.
Locusts and poplars change to unmarried women
Sorting slate from anthracite
Between railroad ties:
The yellow-bearded winter of the depression
Is still alive somewhere, an old man
Counting his collection of bottle caps
In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees
Of my grave.

There is a lot to unpack in the first several lines, but what is most important is the saturation of images. The poem goes from “streaked trees” to “groves” to “locusts and poplars” to “unmarried women” to “the yellow-bearded winter of the depression.” This is where the speaker stops and elaborates: “an old man / Counting his collection of bottle caps / In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees / Of my grave.” The poem becomes dark; depression takes on a double meaning that is both personal and political as it references the Great Depression in the most dispiriting of ways. For added effect, the stanza lands on three heavy words: “On my grave.”

The poem picks up momentum again when the sun enters:

Drunk, mumbling Hungarian,
The sun staggers in,
And his big stupid face pitches
Into the stove.
For two hours I have been dreaming
Of green butterflies searching for diamonds
In coal seams;
And children chasing each other for a game
Through the hills of fresh graves.

In this stanza even more images are introduced: “the sun,” “the stove,” “green butterflies,” “diamonds,” “coal seams,” “children,” “hills,” and “fresh graves.” Readers may begin to feel like they are reading an anti-image poem which suggests that too much is happening at once. This is about more than suffering through a hangover; it is about societal overstimulation. The speaker continues:

But the sun has come home drunk from the sea,
And a sparrow outside
Sings of the Hanna Coal Co. and the dead moon.
The filaments of cold light bulbs tremble
In music like delicate birds.
Ah, turn it off.

The focus shifts here: “And a sparrow outside / Sings of the Hanna Coal Co. and the dead moon.” This is the culmination of previous images that refer to industry: “unmarried women / Sorting slate from anthracite / Between railroad ties” as well as the reference to the Great Depression. Now, a sparrow “sings of the Hanna Coal Co. and the dead moon.” Nature gives way to industry. To add to the image-overload, the speaker brings in sound: “a sparrow outside / sings” and “The filaments of cold light bulbs tremble / In music like delicate birds” and the contrast is both troubling and oddly sweet. The poem overwhelms the reader with discomfort and overstimulation, helplessness, and oppression. However, when the speaker insists: “Ah, turn it off,” the line holds medicinal power. Both mind and body are encouraged to go blank.

The second part of the poem: “Number Two: I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again,” works as a reset from everything that came before it: the depression, the sun, the graves—the Hanna Coal Co. Here it is in its entirety:

In a pine tree,
A few yards away from my window sill,
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down,
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do
That the branch will not break.

In this ending section of the poem, nature and the self are reestablished and reaffirmed. The images are simplified to “a pine tree,” “my window sill,” and “a brilliant blue jay.” The poem is harmonized and finishes with the most powerful line of the book: “for he knows as well as I do / That the branch will not break.” The second part of the poem is brilliant because of the momentum set up in the first part. There is self-recognition in the bird who “abandon[s] himself / To entire delight” and rejuvenation occurs.

Robert Hass is a poet who excels at combining image with deep political implications. Many of the poems in Field Guide (1973) are loaded with a variety of political/historical figures contrasted with nature images and feature a speaker who is contemplative and intellectual. The language is sophisticated and clear and almost innocently shameless. More importantly, it is the way in which Hass’s work embodies all those characteristics fused with authoritative power and conscientiousness that makes him a special kind of poet. In the first part of “On the Coast near Sausalito” the second stanza is rock-solid with image and political astuteness:

Low tide: slimed rocks
mottled brown and thick with kelp
like the huge backs of ancient tortoises
merged with the grey stone
of the breakwater, sliding off
to antediluvian depths.
The old story: here filthy life begins.

The images he uses are deliciously earthy: “slimed rocks,” “kelp,” “ancient tortoises,” “grey stone” and then there are words like “slimed,” “mottled,” “thick,” and “sliding” that increase the potency of the water scene. However, there are two places where language is used to punch up the authority of the poem: “ancient tortoises” and “antediluvian depths.” One is an image and the other is a description, but both are being used metaphorically as a reference to prehistory. The slimed rocks are like the backs of ancient tortoises. The breakwater slides off to antediluvian depths. Finally, the ending line speaks to the argument of the poem: “The old story: here filthy life begins.” Here, “filthy” is filled with metaphorical meaning which readers could interpret as of the earth rather than something of a more sinful or immoral nature.

The poems that hold the most weight in Field Guide are the pornographer poems because they take image, sex, politics, and literary sumptuousness to the most intense levels. In “The Pornographer” the beginning is impressively disturbing:

He has finished a day’s work.
Placing his pencil in a marmalade jar
which is colored the soft grey
of a crumbling Chinese wall
in a Sierra meadow, he walks
from his shed into the afternoon
where orioles rise aflame from the orchard.

The first thing to note, before the images, is the simple first line: “He has finished a day’s work.” Immediately the pornographer is humanized; he has performed “a day’s work,” placing him at the level of a person who does regular labor. Afterwards, readers are saturated with images: “marmalade jar,” “crumbling Chinese wall,” “Sierra meadow,” and then: “he walks / from his shed into the afternoon / where orioles rise aflame from the orchard.” The insertion of romantic imagery is heightened with “afternoon,” “orioles,” “aflame,” and “orchard.” The pornographer has left his “shed” where he labors daily and into a picturesque, fairytale world.

The poem intensifies as it zooms in on the pornographer’s perspective:

He likes the sun and he is tired
of the art he has spent on the brown starfish
anus of his heroine, the wet duck’s-feather tufts
of armpit and thigh, tender and roseate enfoldings
of labia within labia, the pressure and darkness
and long sudden falls from slippery stone
in the minds of the men with anonymous tongues
in his book.

Readers are given another simplified line: “He likes the sun and he is tired,” which speaks to the first line of the poem so that it is clear that the pornographer labors over his work. Again, images follow: “brown starfish,” “wet duck’s-feather tufts,” and “roseate enfoldings.” These nature images are paired with parts of the female body: “anus,” “armpit and thigh,” and “labia.” However, the phrase that follows: “the pressure and darkness” right after “labia within labia” is incredibly powerful, not just in a sexual sense, but in a political sense because it focuses less on image clarity and more on the implications of the pornographer’s laboring “art.” Additionally, there are “long sudden falls from slippery stone / in the minds of the men with anonymous tongues / in his book.” The poem becomes cerebral: it addresses the minds of the men, but more importantly, it addresses the pornographer with three strong words: “in his book.” This is a world the pornographer has created himself.

From this point on, the poem becomes extremely complicated; the pornographer goes even deeper into his mind:

When he relaxes, old images
return. He is probably in Central Asia.
Once again he is marched to the wall.
All the faces are impassive. Now
he is blinded. There is a long silence
in which he images clearly the endless sky
and the horizon, swift with cloud scuds.
Each time, in imagination, he attempts
to stand as calmly as possible
in what is sometimes morning warmth,
sometimes evening chill.

The language is now bare and anti-romantic/anti-pornographic: “Once again he is marched to the wall. / All the faces are impassive. Now / he is blinded.” This passage reads like a PTSD experience. The pornographer combats the traumatizing “old images” with his imagination where he tries to picture “the endless sky,” “the horizon,” and “cloud scuds.” These images represent a desire to achieve purity and nothingness in order to deal with this horrific flashback, and also, the overly-romanticized and pornographic images he has created “in his book.”

In “The Pornographer at the End of Winter” he is further implicated with the use of heavy nature imagery:

He leaves off the defoliation of drugged virgins
to read calligraphies of pheasant tracks
in the last crisp snow around the soggy fields.
Some buds, magenta-colored, green-veined,
sap rising.

The poem makes no lightness of what the pornographer is about; his work is concerned with “the defoliation of drugged virgins.” Prior to that, there is the play on “leaves off” which only adds to the discomfort of what follows, but what is even more interesting is how nature is used in conjunction with the brutal art of pornography. Here, the images are beautiful and well-wrought: “calligraphies of pheasant tracks,” “crisp snow around the soggy fields;” the last two lines of the stanza are nothing but image and color: “Some buds, magenta-colored, green-veined” with the minimalist description: “sap rising.” In “Politics of a Pornographer” readers get the most explicit version of what the pornographer is about:

In his mind there are only
a summer meadow, breasts,
the mossy tuft, his cock,
and twining legs.

For the pornographer, this is pornography at its most basic root: nature intertwined with sex. This is quite the departure from “the minds of the men with anonymous tongues” and “the defoliation of drugged virgins”—two descriptions that are indicative of rape. So there is corruption; there is impurity. This is what makes the PTSD flashback so interesting. It is where the pornographer both punishes and attempts to purify his mind. Everything is in the mind: the nature images, sex, rape, and a language to describe it all. So when the pornographer finishes “a day’s work” and places “his pencil in a marmalade jar” the idea of labor is complicated. The pornographer is someone who does the labor of the mind with a single tool: the pencil. Everything falls back on that one simple image: the pencil—which is not only phallic in nature, but an object, plentiful and cheap, that can be used by anyone who knows how to write words and construct sentences.

Emily Wilson is one of the more innovative poets writing today, merging older forms and techniques with a modern sensibility. Her poems in The Keep (2001) demonstrate image as a total sensory experience that is both artful and instinctive. Her work fluctuates between contrasting poetic structures—highly-compressed poems written in a lyrical style and long-lined descriptions that rush down the page. In either case, her work is rich and nourishing and filled with meditative moments that tantalize the reader’s intellect. “Notes from the Mesa” is a poem that uses form and language to build a landscape of images. Here are the opening couplets:

Outbuildings refusing to come down.
Some little scavenger

polishing its tongue.
The pole fence going mindless

alongside us.
The road burnishes itself

down to a bottomwater.

The strength of this poem comes from the tension of contrasts and economy of images. In the first line, heavy emphasis falls on “Outbuildings refusing” and sets the tone for other objects that inhabit humanistic mentalities while performing their own particular, eccentric behaviors. But more importantly, the reader has been given a collection of images (“outbuildings,” “pole fence,” “road”) that start to create a bigger picture.

The last four couplets add to the scene presented in the first part of the poem:

Bees in the cabinetry
brushed out of their skeletons.

Someone’s having troubled
after the ruined boots.

So the mountain just stands there
where we can witness

its face being scoured.
Like looking into a world scarcely handled.

Here, readers experience a climax of objects, actions, and a slow expansiveness. The poem begins with “outbuildings refusing” and ends with “the mountain just stands there.” There is a contrast of smallness/defiance and largeness/indifference—or, to a greater extent, helplessness. To add to the collection of images from the opening couplets, the reader is given “bees,” “skeletons,” “ruined boots,” and “the mountain” along with a series of cleansing actions: “polishing,” “burnishes,” “brushed,” and “scoured.” These terms are weighted against “outbuildings,” “scavenger,” “pole fence,” “bottomwater,” and “ruined boots” which are typically depicted as dirty.

To complicate things further, a rhetorical statement is inserted directly into the middle of the poem: “How have we come to be here / among the other creatures— / backward.” The word “backward” holds metaphorical meaning because it refers to the speaker and to the landscape as being out of touch with the modern world in a way that is somehow distasteful and unattractive. Wilson confronts this issue of unclean antiquated nature versus sterilized modernity by placing a mountain at the forefront and having it stripped of its “filth.” The last line: “Like looking into a world scarcely handled” provides explanation as to why the outbuildings refuse to come down. The implications are political. Here, manmade and natural objects are both confronted with a cleansing process that is problematic and contradictory. To cleanse is to attempt to become an impossible version of the self that is neither nuanced nor an improvement, but rather—“scarcely handled.” The poem—when read again with all the pieces in place—becomes a deeply meditative experience about humanity and its relationship to creation, nature, and progress.

The most thought-provoking poems in this collection fall under a series of poems entitled Winter Journal. These poems are a wonderful representation of aesthetic pleasure in its fullest sense. Form, language, and image all come together to create poems that are painstakingly-wrought but have a spontaneous movement about them. A saturation of images occurs, taken from natural and manmade objects, as well as a collection of artistic, sewing, and industrial terms that build up over the course of the reading experience, bordering on the spiritual and the sensual. Here is the first half of “The Sky Is the Lost Orpheum”:

The shelter of it carved, caved
Across the river, the park and the little Ferris wheel
closed down
The great oaks emptying, russet, gusseted
the hovering slant light leaking from the outer edge
of cloud bed
leads and shawls pulled forth
The synchrony of the lost elements recovered
the shivering water surfaces, planar unmeldings, remeldings,
riverine alchemies, unlocketed selves
now the reemergence, the sun pouring global gold
uptilted, gobleted, incanted
Am I not as God made me but stranger?
Made stranger still by what I have seen
at this hour of earth untended, unministered—

This poetry is hefty and dense, but full of sensuous beauty. Images are presented in a simple manner: “the park and the little Ferris wheel,” “the great oaks,” “the outer edge of cloud bed.” All of the poems in Winter Journal take advantage of wordplay as well as the total liberation and wildness that free verse provides. But there is also that recurring contrast between nature and manmade objects—and the power of nature recovering itself in the world and in the mind of the speaker. “The synchrony of the lost elements recovered,” “unlocketed selves,” and “reemergence” suggest a deep awakening. The lines that follow: “Am I not as God made me but stranger? / Made stranger still by what I have seen” is a fascinating proclamation, especially after reading a poem like “Notes from the Mesa” which confronts the issue of selfhood in the face of sterilization. The insertion of God is an interesting move, as well as the use of the word “stranger,” which is complex—suggesting that the speaker was created strange to begin with and then “Made stranger still by what I have seen.” Here, God creates with strangeness in mind—and then that strangeness is “made stranger” by the natural environment. “Stranger” takes on contemplative meaning; it becomes equated with uniqueness and individuality.

The poem continues to engage the reader with its rhythmic movements and rich language as it adds layers of image upon image:

And these are the stations of this river
The houses and the boats and the parked cars
The growing wedge the ducks make moving forward, the shape
of the element there among the weeds that jut forward,
the mass of the willows growing deeper in green and sundering
The backfall of sun going downward
The surface of the river coming clear of its own admixture
The ducks moving over like slow planes in formation,
barely seen needles hauling white threads,
secretly heeding
The fish in my skin relinquishes
Will I know then what I have become?

All the poems in Winter Journal use the same structure: long lines bring about a rhythm of language, image, and rhetorical moments that stimulate the mind from a meditative perspective. This poem, much like Wright’s work, presents image as an experience of saturation and sensory depth; it takes on nature as an expansive landscape that the speaker internalizes. And like Hass, Wilson’s work explores that fine line between art, nature, and purity. But here, purity is straight description—stripped-down and unadorned. Readers are simply given a line like “The houses and the boats and the parked cars” or “The backfall of sun going downward” or “The ducks moving over like slow planes in formation” and the connections manifest on their own. Image is used to present nature as bare-boned, but also a fusion of the human world that it incorporates into the continuous development of its ecosystem.

The climax of the poem occurs at the moment where the speaker proclaims: “The fish in my skin relinquishes / Will I know then what I have become?” The word “relinquishes” is important here as an act of letting go, as well as “Will I know then what I have become” which is really a two-part meditation. “Will I know then” and “what I have become” create a statement that perpetually collapses on itself—an unconscious admission of unknowingness. That is the beauty of the work here—its desire to grasp an external landscape that is internalized and made new by the speaker’s rhetorical musings. The speaker may never know, but the questioning drive serves as motivation to take on a deeper exploration of the self and the surrounding world.

What is interesting to note about all of these poems is how much they overlap in terms of image as a reinforcement of the self. Wright’s assertion that “the branch will not break,” Hass’s pencil that becomes drenched in political complexities, and Wilson’s defiant outbuildings all point to something deeper about what it means to be human in a world that is both natural and constructed. So much about the world is unexplained and over-interpreted; the survival of the self depends a great deal on being able to negotiate that paradox and reassert oneself against it. However, what makes these poems especially interesting is the way in which images are used to inspire a meditative view of the self. They engage the idea of solitude and how that experience comes to bear on what is encountered in the external world. Image, as a literary device, can work as a driving force for the self, helping to create poems that mature and gain power over time.

March 25, 2019