If there’s anything that drives me bonkers about poetry, it’s the baseless allegation that free verse is “Tennis without the net”  (Yeah, I’m looking you Robert Frost).   Poetry is intensely metaphorical, but in a contemporary sense, it’s also very richly based in evocative image.  One could easily assert the influence of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to this extent, and the aesthetic that they tried to import from centuries old Asian Formalism.   However, it’s not as always cut and dried that way.   German language modernism also has had it’s share of notables, and perhaps, in terms of popularity, Rilke has overshadowed a good many poets.  That’s a shame, because Georg Trakl, like Williams, has written a sort of image based poetry that certainly helps explain the nuts and bolts of writing poetry.  Consider the following Trakl poem:

Mourning
The dark eagles, sleep and death,
Rustle all night around my head:
The golden statue of man
Is swallowed by the icy comber
Of eternity. On the frightening reef
The purple remains go to pieces,
And the dark voice mourns
Over the sea.
Sister in my wild despair
Look, a precarious skiff is sinking
Under the stars,
The face of night whose voice is fading.

It is not my intent to pick this apart and scrutinize it under the lens of a close reading.   For the moment, I’m interested in what the poem is actually doing on the page.   Each line offers an image, and to some respect that image comes off as a resonate idea.   The first line gives the reader “dark eagles” and assigns them a metaphorical status of “sleep” and “death.”   The next line has the eagles doing something:  “Rustling” all night around the speaker’s head.   We know, because of the abstraction, that “Sleep” and “death” concern the speaker, but the image falling into place is that of a man in bed with eagles flying around him.  So, we can safely assume that he’s more than just bothered by “sleep” and “death.”  The next line shifts, giving the reader a completely new image, one not fully explained like the “dark eagles” were.  But this is how the poem develops, line by line, image stacked onto another image.  There really is no explanation in the poem, either.  It’s a string of images, and to glean meaning out of it, you have to pick through Trakl’s juxtapositions.  However, the sequencing of images is hardly random.  Trakl’s lines are not the result of a word blender, or some Dadaist exercise.

Notably, a reader does see this often in a lot of Williams’ poetry.  Resonate imagery, image sequence, and not a lot of explanation sometimes are notable in his work, especially the shorter poems.  (And having quoted “The Red Wheelbarrow” to death in my lifetime, here’s a different Williams poem):

The Great Figure
Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
In the name of fairness, William’s poem strikes a little more simplistic, by the dynamic is the same.  The reader is offered a string of images, broken into units of lines.  There’s hardly a lot of abstraction here, as Williams doesn’t actively explain the meaning of it all.  He’s just giving the reader a fire truck in a dark city.  We as readers, then have to pick the imagery apart and consider every word to arrive at a greater meaning.  We see this at work elsewhere with Williams all the time:
Between Walls

the back wings
of the
hospital where
nothing
will grow lie
cinders
in which shine
the broken
pieces of a green
bottle

Frequent charges against Trakl and Williams are: they write poetry that is wildly too simplistic.  Writing nothing but imagery, it seems, is not profound enough for some readers, especially those used to Shakespearean pontificating (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?).  However, what both Trakl and Williams accomplish is finding a totally new language to speak in.  There is no such thing as a meaningless image, and figuring out what a poet is trying to say, especially when they’re speaking in imagery, becomes a lot harder.  Meaning isn’t being spoon-fed, but it’s presented in a way that demands closer scrutiny.  So, despite the deceptive simplicity, this sort of poetry is a lot harder to pick apart, because unlike with some lyric poetry, the poet isn’t digesting it for you.

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