What are the images of american poetry? We know what the images of american films are. Chuck Workman’s THE FIRST HUNDRED YEAR: A CELEBRATION OF AMERICAN MOVIES makes those images very accessible. Even if you haven’t seen that documentary you know Bogart’s face from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE or CASABLANCA or HIGH SIERRA. There is no mistaking the geography of that face. And, you know John Wayne’s face from STAGECOACH or RIO GRANDE or TRUE GRIT. There just is simply no mistaking the wars that had been waged across that face. We know the cinematic images that have defined our films, shaped our mythologies, and entered our dreams.
We know that butcher knife that Tony Perkins uses to menace Janet Leigh with in PSYCHO. We know the hat that gets blown through the woods in MILLER’S CROSSING. We know the hot rod that James Dean drives to the cliff edge and the oblivion of the Pacific in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Marlon Brando’s motorcycle cap in THE WILD ONES. That black and white freeze frame in THE WILD BUNCH where William Holden says, “If, they move, killem.” I could go on but you get the picture. These kinds of images have been burned into the american psyche.
The images from american films have shaped us in ways that we can never fully understand. But what about the images from american poems? What do they mean to any of us at all? If you are an american poet, you know practically from the beginning that there is no money in writing poetry. Not like there is for the film director, the Hollywood script writer. A very small percentage of the reading public buys poetry in this country. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that. The strange thing is that the absence of money or an audience for poetry inexplicably somehow it does seem to matter marginally almost in an outlaw way to some readers. And, of course, to everyone writing it.
In a broader sense, poetry is how we define ourselves. Poetry here meaning image making. It doesn’t matter if it’s through the use of a film camera, an old Royal typewriter, a computer, the internet, or a cheap black ink pen and a torn off piece of scrap paper. Poetry does survive, though its survival is both peculiar and perverse. The simple techno fact is that poetry doesn’t seem to have been built to survive, but it does. The premise of it is as fleeting as a dream. And, it really isn’t technologically friendly. While it is taught (I use the word very cautiously here) at many large universities as part of creative writing programs, poetry defies any rational attempt to understand it. You may as well try to understand a wolf fang, you may as well try to understand a harpoon, you may as well try to understand a large rock, a tree limb, a length of rope. When you talk about poetry what you are talking about is something that takes you back thousands of years. If poetry were a celt stone it would have blood smeared on it. If poetry were a spear shaft it would have sweat and the grease from a human hand staining it. If poetry were an old broken stick it would have undecipherable symbols scratched into the bark. And, yet it survives in the age of the internet, tv, film, texting.
And, because it survives it talks to us in ways we can never fully comprehend. It talks to us in dreams. It is part of a kind of national or even international archive of dreams that we can go back to, maybe redream again. Or, involuntarily and without any warning these dreams come to us. Jung loosely defined this reservoir as the collective unconscious but he really didn’t live long enough to see the way that films would evolve and he died long before the internet.
In certain ways poetry is somewhat like water. We take it for granted. If you want a glass of water, you turn on the tap. Or, you go to the store and buy designer water. Water is always there, at least for now, the way that dreams are. Water sustains us in some of the same ways that poetry does. That the movies do. Personally, I go to the movies because my eyes get thirsty. I need to see something on the big screen. I need to be taken out of myself. I need the illusion of going back into the water swimming all over in the theater in that ocean of cinematic light. I need to be bigger than I am. I need to be more mythic than I am. I need to be extraordinary even if it’s for only a little while.
Poems can do that too but they do it perversely. And, they haven’t done that in a very long while. When was the last time that a poem brought you right out of your skin? Or, if not that, then made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Or, if not that then compelled you to get up and go out and drive endlessly around in the night trying to figure out what it was in that poem, in those words, and maybe in the insanity of both your life and that poem that got you so itchy crazy you couldn’t sit still. And, poems can do that but they haven’t done it as often in a very long while either.
Poetry can start fires, it is that combustible. And, poetry can turn those fires into ice, it is that shamanic, that magical. Poetry can tell you movies, all you have to do is be the camera. All you have to do is see, see with all the eyes of your body and all the secret eyes of your dreams. Poetry can bring you the movies that movies can’t make. I dream in movies, I write in dreams. And, sometimes there are places in those dreams or in those waking moments when they both come together, when the poem and the film merge into something far more mysterious, something that may not be filmable but can almost certainly be writable. A great poem can take you places that most movies cannot. A great movie has the ability to see you as well as you see it. And, once you know that then you know you have gained that extra eye.
And, when you see that way it is like seeing with outlaw eyes. Because you want to see it all, you have to see it all, you need beyond need to see it all. It is that seeing that leads to a kind of transcendent knowing. Lorca understood that kind of knowing and Rilke understood that kind of seeing.
We know what the images for the great movies are. Some of us have seen certain films ten, twenty, fifty times because each seeing is like being bathed in those images. But, do we know what the images for great poems are? Does Whitman’s lilac still resonate with any of us? Does Hart Crane’s bridge still mean anything to anyone? Can you still see that horse and rider in Plath’s Ariel? Or, how about Tom McGrath’s kachina images in LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND? Or, the drowned woman in Richard Hugo’s The Lady In Kicking Horse Reservoir?
What are the images of american poetry? Whatever they are they are almost inextricably entwined with american films, american novels, american hopes, american dreams. You couldn’t separate them even if you wanted to. Who is to say that the White Whale isn’t a poetic image? Who is to say that Gatsby’s green light isn’t a poetic image? Who is to say that Judge Holden isn’t a powerful archetypal and poetic image? Who is to say that Dillinger isn’t also a powerful archetypal and poetic image? Maybe Dillinger is one of the most complicated and powerful poetic images in contemporary poetry.
Images are like strange tokens of magic. Sometimes we pick them out of works of art that move us terribly and fatefully and exuberantly and we carry them with us as emblems as fetishes as good luck charms as ways for conjuring. Each time I see THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE I am reminded of that last scene where Tim Holt and Walter Huston hunker down next to an old adobe wall. The gold dust that they had worked so hard for has just blown away in a desert sandstorm and they are back to being as poor as when they started out. And, suddenly they break out laughing. It’s the kind of laughter that challenges the void. It’s laughter in the face of annihilation, in the face of death and nothingness. This same laughter is what closes THE WILD BUNCH. It’s a laughter that is unsettling and freeing, both at the same time. I suspect it’s the kind of laughter that Sylvia Plath may have had going through her head before she stuck it in the oven, the way Weldon Keys was laughing when he took a header off the Golden Gate Bridge. And, I know I have heard it while writing Relentless or The Corpse Is Dreaming or The Name Is Dillinger. You are free to laugh and you are free to die, both at the same time. You really have to hear it if you want the poem to be any good.
What are the images that define american poetry? They dream us even if we don’t always dream them. They are the images that name us and the images that break us and we love them in all of their terrible nightmare splendor.