by T.M. Moore

 

Our Image-hungry Age

Increasingly, our postmodern generation prefers its communications to be in as few words and as many images as possible. Hence, the curious success of Facebook—a medium of images—and Twitter—a medium of few words, as well as of the numerous other communication technologies. Hence also the success of smart phones and texting, selfies and photo apps, and the continued proliferation of cable television, in-home film delivery services (such as Netflix), comic books, graphic novels, and film in general.

Our generation relishes a communications diet of visual images seasoned with a few words. Some, such as the late Neil Postman and Nicholas Carr, have worried that this trend away from verbal communication toward visual images will destroy our ability to communicate meaningfully or to think clearly.

Images and words have factored in human communications from the beginning of civilization. Spoken words reinforced by written words, arranged in a variety of forms (oral history, poetry, songs, plays), can be found in virtually every society, no matter how primitive. Art, sculpture, architecture, fashion, and more have supplemented the verbal images of each generation with visual representations. These can be so powerful as to freeze in time the zeitgeist of an entire generation (see Medieval iconography or 19th century Romantic painting).

But Postman, in particular, worried that, in our day, the increased hunger for visual images threatens to replace, or, at least, to minimize, the role of words in human communication, thus jeopardizing meaning by reducing it to mere subjective experience. He saw this as a most undesirable trend, given that human beings are uniquely identified as the creature that speaks and uses sophisticated language. Thus, our retreat from words into the realm of visual images constitutes a retreat from humanity itself, into a more animalistic world ruled by passions and instincts, rather than by reason.

 

Words and Images

Whether or not that’s so, the opposing of words and images, through the emphasis on visual images, is a troublesome notion in itself. Words can create images through their ability to associate various kinds of facts and experiences. Such images have power to make the kind of lasting impressions visual images can only hope to achieve. Visual images are powerful, to be sure. But they are fleeting. This is why, whether in film, on television, in a political campaign, in advertising, or at a rock concert, it is necessary to pile up image upon image in a dizzying array in order to hold the attention and capture the affections of our image-hungry age.

But words—particularly words combined into verse—have power to create images and associations which can go far beyond what visual images can achieve in the way of lasting, even life-changing, effects. Just as a personal example, I cannot remember a single compelling image—a life-transforming image—from any film, athletic event, television program, or concert which I attended during my years in college. But I can still see the room in which I was sitting, feel the chill of a December afternoon, and my shuddering as I read for the first time the final couplet of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come ‘round at last,/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

Poetry may not be the savior of verbal communication, but it can, at the very least, provide a meeting-ground between those who prefer their communications in images and those who yet pursue them in words. Poetry, more, I think, than any other form of verbal communication, can create associations so personal, and with such expansive power, that they can excite the affections and expand the imagination of all who are willing to take the time to read and discuss.

Let’s look at two poems which, by employing various associations, convey powerful images and engage profound affections, but which do so in different ways.

Richard Wilbur’s “A Barred Owl” is a very homely, simple, and self-reflective meditation on the power of words—even just a few words—to alter dramatically the landscape of imagination. C.S. Lewis, in his “On A Theme From Nicolas Of Cusa,” takes what is at once a more familiar and yet more intellectual approach to stimulating our imaginations, challenging the reader to explore new associations in order to gain the full meaning implied in his verse.

 

‘A Barred Owl’

I particularly enjoy poems that reflect on the way words and poetry can affect us, such as this offering by Richard Wilbur:

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

This poem not only paints an image, but it fills that image with powerful affections—first, with horror, then comic relief and rest, then a renewed sense of horror which, were it to be envisioned by the sleeping child, would doubtless be as terrifying as what she had only imagined.

We not only see the child being comforted in that dark room, but we feel what she and her comforters must have felt on that dark and warping night: fear, then humor, then reassurance, and, finally, rest. We can only imagine what “terror” was becoming “bravely clear” in the mind of that child before her grandparents arrived to comfort her. Here Wilbur encourages the reader to paint in his or her own image from such childhood fears (mine always had one eye and lots of sharp teeth; I’d read the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops as a very young child).

Then, the mood of terror relieved, the poet muses on the power of words, their ability to define and quell our fears, before using his words to begin a crescendo of horror—“stealthy flight,” “small thing in a claw,” “eaten raw”—that takes something of the child’s original terror and foists it on the reader, suddenly.

I have read this poem to students and delighted to hear their responses go from sighs of relief and giggles, to audible gasps at the end. The images suggested by the words of this verse can be made highly personal and relived again and again with each successive reading. I doubt that the experience of “A Barred Owl” could be captured with equal effect in any series of visual images.

 

‘On A Theme From Nicolas Of Cusa’

Lewis’ delightful meditation is subtitled, including the parentheses, (De Docta Ignorantia, III.ix.). Neither the title nor the subtitle is likely to help most readers of this lively verse, at least, not at first:

When soul and body feed, one sees
Their differing physiologies.
Firmness of apple, fluted shape
Of celery, or tight-skinned grape
I grind and mangle when I eat,
Then in dark, salt, internal heat,
Annihilate their natures by
The very act that makes them I.

But when the soul partakes of good
Or truth, which are her savoury food,
By some far subtler chemistry
It is not they that change, but she,
Who feels them enter with the state
Of conquerors her opened gate,
Or, mirror-like, digests their ray
By turning luminous as they.

The meaning of this poem is not hard to gather: When we eat physical food—in the first stanza, the mention of various foods, reinforced by all those fricatives and labials, that grinding and mangling—our digestive system—“dark, salt, internal heat”—turns what we eat into fuel for the cells of our bodies. The food becomes us, a point comically emphasized by the misuse of the personal pronoun at the very end of the first stanza.

The only “physical” words in the second stanza—“conquerors” and “mirror”—are used as metaphors of abstract subjects. Lewis deftly employs consonance to suggest the softer, subtler, abstract and spiritual concepts which we cannot see or hold in our hands, but which are powerful in transforming us into something other than what we are. “Good” and “truth” are the foods that make us “luminous” like God Himself. We must be subdued by such ideas and “digest” them like rays of light in a mirror, so that, glory having been experienced, glory will radiate from us (2 Cor. 3.12-18).

But if this poem is merely about personal transformation, why the cryptic title and subtitle? Why not just call it “Transformation” or “Spiritual Growth: A Comparison” or some such? Because the poem is about much greater transformation, transformation which believers experience in a microcosm, but which we can only fully understand and appreciate, once we explore the associations suggested in the title and subtitle.

Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), Bishop of Brixen, was one of the truly great Renaissance men of his day. He was a pastor, theologian, reformer, scholar, conciliarist, and ecumenist, who fell into disfavor with and was persecuted by the Austrian monarch. He reflected and wrote broadly—on human knowledge, mathematics, philosophy, and history. Nicolas took his Christian faith into every area of life, seeking the transforming power of goodness and truth for individuals, the Church, and society. His Christian worldview seems to have been more self-conscious and expansive than that of most of his contemporaries. He would perhaps have been much more at home in this century, amid all our worldview fussing and fretting, than in his own.

In De docta ignorantia, part III and section ix, Nicholas reflected on the transforming power of grace, beginning his meditation in that section with a reflection on the dual nature of Christ (reflected in Lewis’ two stanzas) and concluding with a meditation on the Church as the Body of Christ. It is this larger, more expansive notion of transformation that Lewis sees epitomized in the believer’s experience, and that he invites us, by association, to contemplate.

Lewis does not want us to think in a merely personal way about the transforming power of things true and good. Jesus, ground and mangled in the flesh because of the sins of the human ego, rose to everlasting goodness and truth in His glorified body (there is an allusion to poet John Donne in those “conquerors”, and perhaps even to Psalm 24); and He lifts us into His glory by the transforming power of His resurrection life. And not only us: Jesus, Lewis suggests, is making all things new (2 Cor. 5.17; Rev. 21.5). His grace reaches to the whole Church and all creation, inviting and calling His transformed people to bring the power of grace to bear on every aspect of life and culture—as Nicolas had sought to do in his day—and to turn all of creation luminous with the Light of Christ.

Lewis sets the highest aspirations of the Medieval Church into the contemporary Christian’s reach by this association with Nicolas, as if to inculcate in us a sense of longing for something much, much more than mere personal piety. The effect on the thoughtful reader is to generate new images of and enthusiasm for the transforming power of the Gospel as it radiates the glory of God through the Church into every area of life.

Neil Postman and Nicholas Carr worried that the increasing barrage of visual images on the brains of contemporary humans would only dull our thinking and stifle imagination. The literary images created in poetry, through its powers of association and personalization, entail no such threat. Rather, poetry can enrich imagination, stimulate conversation, ignite affections, and perhaps, motivate readers to the kind of deeper introspection—an ongoing dialog between an empty soul and a slouching rough beast, for example—which can set a rich imaginative stage for the drama of grace and truth.

 

 

T.M. Moore is Principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe. He is the author of more than 30 books, including 6 volumes of poetry, and his poems appear in various journals and at several websites. He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. This essay is the first in a series.


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7 Responses

  1. James Sale

    A beautifully written and insightful article, and the two poems are wonderful examples to use to make the points. I totally agree with the analysis, except to say that I regard the overuse of imagery, as in imagism, in the C20th does result in an imaginative, and so emotional, deficit. The thing about ‘real’ imagery is that it works in poetry because of the metrics and other sound effects. Yeats, who is cited, was a metrical genius, and so the imagery works. If we take Pound’s famous ‘in a station of the metro’ poem and its ‘image’, I have to say I regard that a peculiarly flat and dull – indeed, worthy of a grade 13 college student. Which, of course, is what imagism has enabled – a whole load of bad writing which thinks it’s good because it emulates Pound’s disastrous forays into images and impenetrable obscurity. Think of an image; that’s it, no thought needed, you provide the missing semantic blanks, and everyone is their own interpreter, which leads to the wonderful virtue-signalling position of ‘we’re not judgemental’, and so we get to the progressive liberal position. Darn! However, the examples here are really telling and I think this is a great essay. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Very well put, James. Imagery without a link to rational discourse has been the plague of modernist and postmodernist poetry. It’s even had a pernicious effect in cinema, where stupid directors now think that “visuals” are more important than anything else in a film, including plot-line, dialogue, or coherent dramatic structure.

      Gerald Harnett, who edited the poetry magazine Hellas many years ago, once suggested that the sane members of an audience at a poetry reading should carry small placards with the words “WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?” printed on them. He proposed that whenever someone recited a meaningless imagistic poem, the audience should wave the placards instead of applauding.

      Reply
  2. James Sale

    Thanks Joe – I like the idea, though we have to ask ourselves if we knew in advance what was on the menu, would we go? The trouble is – I have in the past been to too many, always expecting something good, and always ending up disappointed. So now I’ve got it – don’t go if you know! but the placard – just in case!

    Reply
  3. T.M.

    Thanks, James and Mark. Paying close attention to good poetry is intellectually stimulating, spiritual refreshing, and plentifully instructive. Blessings.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      T,M., I join you in upholding the preeminence of the Logos, for without that there is no rhyme or reason, and all is lost to the machinations of Sauron. Tolkien understood this well, and so wrote the greatest literary work of the twentieth century.

      Reply
      • T.M.

        Right you are C. B. He makes it all work, and makes it beautiful.

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