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Robert Bly Redefines the Image: Imagism vs Picturism

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Robert Bly

Robert Bly

Introduction: When Images are Not Images

In Robert Bly's prose ramblings titled American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity, the quintessential poetaster defines the literary device known as "image": "An image and a picture differ, in that the image being the natural speech of the imagination, cannot be drawn from or inserted back into the natural world."

Bly seems to be focusing entirely on visual imagery, as he defines "image" against "picture"; imagery, of course, includes specific language that may appeal to any of the five senses, not just sight. For example, Robert Browning’s "Meeting at Night"

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

The poem begins and ends steeped in imagery—mostly visual, but two lines contain images that appeal to sight, sound, and smell: "A tap at the pane (visual), the quick sharp scratch (auditory) / And blue spurt of a lighted match (olfactory)."

These lines portray a lover tapping at the window of his beloved: we can see him and hear his tapping. He then strikes a match, and we can hear the match head scraping against some rough object, we can see the flame, and we can also smell the sulfur from the match as it bursts into flame.

But according to Bly, these images are not images at all, they are merely pictures. They all do appear in nature; they all are retained in the memory so that after reencountering them, the reader/listener can grasp the scene that the lover is experiencing in the poem.

Imagination and Memory

We have, indeed, used our imaginations to help us see, hear, and smell these Brownian images. Not only imagination but also memory. We must be able to remember the smell of a match or the sound of a tap on a windowpane, in order to be able to grasp the drama that Browning has created. Is this portrayal simply "picturism" because our grasp of it "can be drawn from [and] inserted back into the natural world"?

Imagination and memory work together in our understanding of any text. The memory consists of information that is in the memory repository (the subconscious, often misconstrued as "the unconscious"), while the imagination works at connecting information gathered from experience, feelings, and thoughts, all of which are represented by language.

If our memory and imagination were not capable of acting on language this way, we would not be able to understand any text. We cannot understand a language we have not learned, because words of the foreign language are not stored in our memory; the imagination has nothing to which it can connect the unknown words.

If, however, an image is, as Bly defines it, "the natural speech of the imagination" but "cannot be drawn from or inserted back into the natural world," then how can we ever understand the image? If the imagination is a place where sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch do not hold those things that comprise the "natural world," then what is within the purview of the imagination?

Of course, there are connections that the memory and imagination can make that are on their face absurd, surreal, or simply false. But those connections are not the stuff of poetry or any art, unless they are being used in the art for refutation against counterfeiting. Such phenomena may comprise the initial writing exercises known as brain-storming or pre-writing, but if they are left in an unformed, unpolished state they will remain incommunicable at best and ugly at worst.

Image vs Picture

Bly has offered for comparison the following phrases, one he considers an image and one he considers a picture: His example of an image is Bonnefoy's "interior sea lighted by turning eagles," which he contrasts with Pound's "Petals on a wet black bough." According to Bly, Bonnefoy's phrase is not taken from nature and cannot be inserted back into the natural world, while Pound's can be. Keep in mind that Bly has called for poets to, "ask the unconscious . . . to enter the poem and contribute a few images that we may not fully understand."

Misconstruing "unconscious" for "subconscious," Bly is begging for absurdity. He wishes to experience gibberish phrases, for that is all they can ever be, if not based on a language that is common to us all. And is it really true that Bonnefoy's phrase is not taken from nature and cannot be inserted back into the natural world? An "interior sea" obviously represents metaphorically the mind (and possibly the soul), while the "turning eagles" are certain thoughts that are illuminating the surface of that sea.

If the components of that phrase— "sea," "eagles," "lighted"—appeared nowhere in nature but only in the subconscious of the poet, they would not be intelligible to anyone conversant in the English language.

Bly is skirting the real issue of language attempting to explain the unexplainable or perhaps by simply remaining unaware of the distinction between the phenomenon of what is effable and what is ineffable. The ineffable—that is, the world beyond the physical level of being—is not explainable in worldly language. (This fact remains the foundation on which atheism is built.) Therefore, the poetry devices of metaphor, simile, image, and often personification are employed to make that valiant attempt to communicate what exists and what is happening on that ineffable level of being. Bly likely does this because his secularism has overtaken his ability to vouchsafe that a spiritual level of existence is real but remains beyond human language ability to describe it without metaphors and other poetic devices.

Two examples of Bly's own so-called images further demonstrate the poverty of his image vs picture claims. In his piece titled "Driving Toward Lac Qui Parle River," he concocts the lines: "water kneeling in the moonlight" and "The lamplight falls on all fours in the grass."

The absurdity of water going down on its knees is simply one of the nonsense creations that upon further consideration would find a better phrasing. And making an animal of lamplight screams out, "look at me, I'm saying something totally original." Of course, with both lines, the scribbler is merely "counterfeiting." He has nothing to say and so he knows it matters not one whit how he does not say it.

That his "'unconscious' (sic, should be subconscious) has enter[ed] the poem and contribute[d] a few images that we may not fully understand," is, of course, one silly way of covering such laziness.

Today’s Poetry Is Without the Image?

While Bly’s definition of the image as something that cannot be drawn from or returned to the natural world is absurd, so is his claim, "The poetry we have now is a poetry without the image." This statement is false, not only false but impossible.

Here are a few examples of contemporary poems that definitely are not without the image: from Linda Pastan’s "The Cossacks": "those are hoofbeats / on the frosty autumn air"; from Ted Kooser’s "Dishwater": "a bridge that leaps from her hot red hands / and hangs there shining for fifty years / over the mystified chickens," and from Donald Hall’s "The Painted Bed": "Grisly, foul, and terrific / is the speech of bones."

These images and all the many poems that employ imagery testify to the false Bly claim that today's poetry is imageless. Of course, the Bly defined image does not and cannot appear in poetry without its concomitant clash with understanding and appreciation. If he would claim that no images according to the Blyian definition exists, he would be spot on. Because his own absurd examples do not exist as poetry but mere debris of language twaddle. Basically, the impossibility of making a image according the Bly’s definition remains operative.


In his American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity, Bly assaults the work of the poet Robert Lowell, particularly Lowell’s "For the Union Dead." Bly quotes several passages that he particularly despises, calling them "coarse and ugly," "unimaginative," and then explains that Lowell is counterfeiting, "pretending to be saying passionate things . . . , and the passage means nothing at all."

Bly's American Poetry: Wilderness and Domesticity, his collection of prose ramblings, demonstrates, one might argue, the bankruptcy of Bly’s own critical vision, and his chapter on Lowell, titled "Robert Lowell’s Bankruptcy," is one of the most revealing; the exact weaknesses for which Bly criticizes Lowell attach only to Bly.

Quite possibly, Bly reveals the reason that he has been able to "counterfeit" a career in poetry when he says, ". . . for American readers are so far from standing at the center of themselves that they can’t tell when a man is counterfeiting and when he isn’t" (my emphasis). Is this, perhaps, an admission regarding your own art, Mr. Bly? If an artist espouses such a derogatory notion about his audience, what is there to keep him honest? What does this imply about the integrity of his own art?

Redefining the Image into Nothingness

In order to claim that images are not images but pictures and that there are no images in today's poetry, Bly has concocted an impossible, unworkable, and totally fraudulent definition of "image." To perpetuate such a gross literary scam upon the already destitute literary world is, indeed, a travesty.

It is little wonder that poetry possesses little heft in the 21st century, after the drubbing it has taken at the hands of modernists, postmodernists, and outright scam artists like Bly and his ilk in the 20th century.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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