12 Months of Essays on Poetry and Craft: February 2013 Vol. 5 # 4


Poetry That Moves:
A brief definition of the Active Image
Date 2/10/2013
This isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s as old as poetry itself. Perhaps though, for the sake of this short essay, the term, which Kerry James Evans and I came up with independent of any perfunctory research, just might be: The Active Image.
How does the active image differ from the plain old traditional image? Pound’s imagism? Simple. The active image accomplishes the piecemeal creation of the moving image in the mind of the reader—it is controlled and measured, and moreover the twenty-first century reader has been programmed (thanks largely to cinema) to expect this type of image development as just one part of the standard progression of scene.
It accentuates the fundamental truth that nothing is static. Even if we assume sometimes that the paper on the desk is motionless, the walls and roof around us as stolid as vault doors, we are only taking for granted the subatomic writhing, sparking and quirking which is actually going on within every single thing our senses come in contact with, forgetting the ground is shifting beneath us, that the earth is hurtling the known world through space toward some unknown calamity.
Look, neither I nor Kerry were (are, or will ever be for that matter) prodigious geniuses. We were drawn to write poetry more out of a kindred emotional discontent, rather than any intellectual pursuit: an addiction to the sonic resonance of language (set into the motion of syntax and broken with the line) within the restless spirit of humankind. That sounds haughty, scratch it from the record.
How about, poetry did for us what nothing else could, and one night during graduate school back in Carbondale, Illinois, Kerry and I were throwing darts in his home office, drinking Miller Genuine Draft, and trying to unpack this thing we’d found so appealing, this device. We’d looked at Pound’s list of Don’ts: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” until finally Kerry landed on the term, to give credit where credit is due.
We settled that the image, at its most evocative, moves and participates in the play of ideas—in short, is active with a purpose. A very utilitarian example:
                        Green olive sunk in a martini glass
                        waits to be carried by a waitress
                        across the crowded bar to a table
                        to make the surgeon’s hand stable.
First: Green olive sunk in a martini glass: even when the verb is past tense, as with sunk, the motion is still implied, and the reader sees a replay of this happening in the present tense of the imagination. The object itself is all the reader has by the time the line break hits, and they’re left with a martini glass floating in the ether.
Second: waits to be carried by a waitress: the green olive is now waiting like someone shifting from foot to foot at a bus stop (note: the active image is often a mixture of character action and personification). There is both potential and kinetic energy at play in the verb, and at the end of the line we bring in the waitress—thus far we have zoomed out enough from the martini glass to incorporate the waitress station at the end of the bar.
Third: across the crowded bar to a table: now the scene is complicated or made fuller by the mention of two words: across and crowded. The reader is moving through the room, filling in the pieces, line by line, until the scene is ready, the table has been prepared.
Fourth: to make the surgeon’s hand stable: the revelation, of course, is the payoff—the joining of two forces, a symbiosis. It’s where the motion has led us both surprisingly and inevitably.
Now, one could make the argument that the second and third lines are filler, that the scene itself stands without them, that the waitress and the crowded bar are implicitly conjured in the reader’s imagination. One could make that argument, I suppose, but every great poem, every great story, is about a journey not just a destination, just as every impassible gorge needs a bridge to sway between its two sides, if we are to pass. The buildup gives resonance to any revelation. And not to mention, to favor the precision of the image and scene is to spend a little extra time developing it (purposefully developing it)—that the development, the building, is essential to animating the scene.  
Warning: the danger in overuse is no different than the danger in overusing any other technique: the stilted poetry of the one-trick pony. “Verb stacking,” Kerry James called it, which is quite simply an overload of action verbs used to sustain the motion of the scene for the sake of motion. Like most things that announce themselves, you know it when you read it. Its visual equivalent might be the indiscriminate use of stereoscope in any new film. 
I know craft-speak is good, wholesome fun, but I need to get back to writing poetry; so rather than parading out the army of historical and contemporary examples to make my case more compelling (the fodder of a much longer essay), let’s leave it at this: poetry has a few things it does uniquely better than other genres and mediums of expression: the editorial is more timely, the novel is more dogged in its pursuit of the narrative, the painting has more play between color, and the sculpture more dimension; music is more sonically nuanced while dance has more command over the human form; opera has a more expansive vocal range, drama has more momentary beauty and film has the ultimate collaborative power.
Poetry though, is more methodical than any other genre of writing, more present in the imagination than any other medium, and more precise in its ability to create an image, to build a scene, line by line, and the active image (so far as I can tell) is the key to setting that scene in motion.


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