I like to terrify my students with what imagery is capable of. Moving past the “red as a rose” and “hot like summer” kinds of images is certainly at least one full 75-minute Introduction to Creative Writing class period (+ several reading and writing assignments). It’s when those reading/writing assignments urge the initial eyebrow-snaking “I hate poetry!” sighs out of their mouths that I know the true conversation has begun. When I hear those frustrated sighs, I can’t help but laugh a little, nod, smile, ask “Why do you say that?” I listen to the reply, still smiling (partially because I want them to be honest without fear of insulting me, their poet-teacher), then say, “You don’t hate it.” I then silently revere Wallace Stevens and Jennifer L. Knox for helping me accomplish what I set out to do: First stage, terrified; second stage, “whoa…”
During these moments, I’m often recalling what it was like for my undergraduate self to encounter such imagery-rich poetry as Sharon Olds (“The shadows lie down like stunned animals in the corners / and I set myself up in bed like an invalid, / a damaged woman, the books, the cup of tea, / the notebooks. I prepare to receive / the long gold finger of fire / when it inches sideways into the window and / drops its molten bar across my legs / like a police lock”) and Lyn Hejinian (“It is happiness to dream / The men ask me where is the charred pot and I say it is in the car trunk / The men deny that the slopes have walked into the creek / They are probably right and keep consuming / Fire they need—”). My eyes widened with ineffable emotions as my highlighter colored those pages raw. The emotions were a simultaneous exclamation of “Oh?” and “YES!”, humility and empowerment, fear and exhilaration. In the words of some sort of “I lived it, you can too” motivational speaker, that’s when I knew that I not only loved poetry, I needed it.
This isn’t to say that I expect my students to have the same emotional reaction to the image as I did. Some of them, certainly, arrive to class equipped with experience and appreciation. They’ve skipped the question marks and headed right into exclamation points. And this is wonderful. There are also those who never move past the stage of fear and/or disdain. They’ll either stay silent during the poetry half of the semester, or their eye rolls will be so loud that I – always the self-reflective instructor – will take note and wonder if I am, in fact, losing the poetry vote.
This also isn’t to say that I teach creative writing because I want everyone to love it like I do. But I like to think that mere exposure to poetry is an asset to anyone’s rounded educational experience. To be a citizen of the world, it’s important, I think, to know what words can do, to be able to use them like little tools, to piece them together like many sticks of gum carried in a pants pocket that, once chewed and molded together, can plug a leak – until the word-patch is no longer strong enough, and then new pieces of gum need to be chewed. (Oh, I am no Lyn Hejinian.)
So when I ask my students to read things like Stevens’ “The Man On the Dump” in tandem with Knox’s “Notes From the Future,” I truly hope that they’re considering imagery from every which way. An evocative image will engage the senses, point to something specific, and maybe change the way you experience something. This is why I am so drawn to “The Man On the Dump.” The image!-image!-image!-ness of it does all these evocative things, while pointing directly at imagery itself, and asking it for more.
The Man On the Dump [by Wallace Stevens]
Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho…The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor's poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.
Now in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox) ,
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on) ,
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
That's the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That's the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That's what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow's voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher's honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes, and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
I would have no greater pleasure this day than to close-read this entire poem for you, dissect and dig through it, unpack its every bit of “dewiest dew.” Instead, I will grab onto the final two words of the poem, the same word twice, one capitalized, the other not, partially out of grammar-correctness, but also because the first “the” qualifies the second “the.” After a poem that acts as a garbage pile of both typical and atypical poetic imagery, that final abstract line is almost more shocking than any other fresh, concrete image that could be used instead. The “truth” is “the the.” The what? Exactly.
What I’m trying to get at here (—something bless the babbling nature of the blog!) is that it’s the act of pointing to the specific, not necessarily the specific itself, that holds the true value of imagistic experience. It’s not enough to “cry stanza my stone” (—request poetry of the mundane?). It’s the that, and the that, and the that over there too – the noticing, the capturing, the translation of brain image to word image, and especially, the recreation of those images into new pieces of chewed-up gum. -- Lindsay Daigle