The Image and Bachelard

10 07 2009
Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms

I have been reading a lot lately in preparation for an application to a research degree here in Sydney, Australia. That application has been lodged now, thankfully, but I’ve continued reading, mostly for my own interest, and partly because I know that if I get accepted I’m going to have to back up my proposal ‘talk’ with a serious and studious amount of ‘walk’. As part of this reading I’ve picked up a copy of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘On Poetic Imagination and Reverie’, which is available from I’m still working my way through Collete Gaudin’s well thought out and interesting introduction to the work, and already it has me questioning some of the basic assumptions of our language.

 The one I want to write about at the moment is the idea and concepts surrounding the word ‘image’, as understood by our culture, and as understood by Bachelard. This will by no means be a definitive examination, but my first gentle foray into playing with this area of thinking, so take from it what you will.

 The first thing I think we should look at is: what do we mean when we use the word ‘image’? In English speaking cultures the word image has come to predominately mean a visual representation. This is not to say that the meaning of the word has degraded from a broader concept in recent, more technological times. Quite the contrary. A definition given in 1707 gives the meaning as ‘an artificial resemblance, either in painting or sculpture. However, the word, etymologically, runs:

 c.1225, “artificial representation that looks like a person or thing,” from O.Fr. image, earlier imagene (11c.), from L. imaginem (nom. imago) “copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance,” from stem of imitari “to copy, imitate” (see imitate). Meaning “reflection in a mirror” is c.1315. The mental sense was in L., and appears in Eng. c.1374. Sense of “public impression” is attested in isolated cases from 1908 but not in common use until its rise in the jargon of advertising and public relations, c.1958. Imagism as the name of a movement in poetry that sought clarity of expression through use of precise visual images, “hard light, clear edges,” was coined 1912 by Ezra Pound.

So the word has its roots in ‘copying, imitating’ rather that superficially resembling. And this, I think it key to the difference between how our current culture uses the word ‘image’ colloquially, and how we actually employ images, especially poetically.

 When we say ‘Image’ these days too often we mean ‘picture’, whereas what image means is ‘an artificial representation’, which needn’t be entirely visual. It is interesting to note that the French for image, funnily enough, is image (I put it in italics to help you imagine the accent), and the meaning translates not just to ‘visual’ image, but also to ‘idea’. It’s easy to over-read this sort of effect. However, what I hope to emphasise is that an image, as commonly understood, tends to under-emphasise the non-visual elements of the image.

 What Bachelard emphasises in his writing is the ‘material’ nature of the image. There is a complicated thought process behind this idea, but what it boils down to in my mind is that the material image, as understood by Bachelard, encompases the entire experience, conceptual, physical and referential, of a thing, not just the sight of it. In fact, Gaudin’s exegesis quotes as “Images are ‘lived’, ‘experienced,’ ‘reimagined’ in an act of consciousness …” In this way he downplays Sartre’s use of symbols:

Bachelard challenges Sartre’s choice of softness, viscosity, and shapelessness as direct symbols of the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness. … these are perjorative qualities, fixed in the moment of their material becoming.

 The point of Bachelard’s challenge is that softness, viscosity, shapelessness are not well chosen as symbols because there is no material experience to be found in them. They are immaterial and abstract, and as such do not relate back to an image, as such, but to a suggestion of one. As Gaudin explains, they are ‘fixed’ in place before they have become real.  However, an image that does adequately symbolise ‘the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness’ could itself conjure sensations/connotations of softness, viscosity, shapelessness.

 I think that an image must suggest the materiality of the thing being imagined. In this sense, then, the Poundian/Imagist idea of the image as an experience comes more into focus as the attempt, not just to describe visually, but to present the imagined materialisation of time, place, object etc. I’ll end with a famous example of Poundian Imagism. The haiku-esqu:


 The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

 The poem is strongly visual, there’s no denying this. But the poem is not just attempting to superimpose one image on another in order to point out similarities. There is a definite, materialism to the imagery. The faces of the people, above their dark clothes, do not just resemble the bough visually, they are also wet, and fragile as petals. Pound attempts to convey not just an image that may be considered beautiful, but also his own sense of experiencing beauty. Suddenly, succinctly, at a glance. The image as an experience.


Ezra Pound and The Pisan Cantos

29 06 2009

There are some things that you can’t learn about a poem just by reading it.

Ezra Pound Mugshot 1945

Ezra Pound Mugshot 1945

For sure, I knew that, for Ezra Pound, the Cantos marked a shift in his poetic style/intentions that would govern the rest of his life’s work. But reading the Biography of Pound on Wikipedia this morning I came across this description:

On May 24 he was transferred from Genoa to a United States Army detention camp north of Pisa. He spent 25 days in an open cage before being given a tent, and appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He drafted the Pisan Cantos in the camp. This section of the work in progress marks a shift in Pound’s work, being a meditation on his own and Europe’s ruin and on his place in the natural world. The Pisan Cantos won the first Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress in 1949.

The Pisan Cantos were not the first, but they are considered amongst the most read and influential of the greater body of the Cantos. This was perhaps because, imprisoned in Genoa without his usual library of resources, Pound was less able to cram the page with allusion. Less able, perhaps, but certainly not prohibited. The man was a master of reference and deliberately so. As Marjorie Perloff reminds us in her review of ‘Ezra Pound, poems and translations’ by Richard Sieburth:

 …when, on May 3, 1945, Pound was arrested at his home in the hills above Rapallo, he immediately put a small Chinese dictionary and a copy of the Confucian classics in his pocket. Working as he then was on his Confucian translations, he knew that, wherever the military police were taking him, he would need these books.   

And so, coming to the end point of my quote mining operation, it is not clear how we should then approach the Pisan Cantos. I’m of the opinion that if a poem has established itself as important, without reference to its personal context, we then are entitled to gain more insight by looking at the experiences that surrounded its creation. How do we read it though? Was the writing process an emotional response to having been imprisoned in an open cage for nearly a month by the occupying American forces, or was he coldly going about his work despite his situation? Maybe both.

 It certainly seems unlikely that the themes of the Pisan Cantos can be separated from the situation Pound was in at the time. The question becomes, then, how much do we learn by knowing what we know about the situation around these Cantos? Certainly the knowledge makes them seem more sympathetic in hind-sight, perhaps also more humane. For a poet who was widely criticised for his inaccessibility, perhaps the knowledge also makes them just that little bit more accessible as well. But, hypothetically, if we can’t learn about the context of the poem just by reading it, how much should we allow context to alter how we read and understand it.

 This much, I suppose, is a matter of choice. A post-modernist or post-structuralist would probably tell you that understanding a poem’s context is not just valuable, but essential to understanding of the work, and I tend to have sympathy for this point of view. It may, ultimately, come down to just that, to point of view. A creator of concrete-poetry, for example, my say that context for creation is unimportant in poetry, as the effect of a poem comes from the direct experience of the reading/viewing. A devotee of the Beat poets, especially of Allan Ginsberg, might say that understanding the context of the poem is half the battle in understanding the poem itself. I’m not sure that there’s a right answer in this.

I do know that the American Library of Congress was able to look beyond Pound’s Fascist sympathies, his trial as a traitor, and his anti-Semitism when they granted him the Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos. Perhaps the lesson is that context doesn’t make or unmake the greatness of a piece of literature, but if it makes our reading more complete, then we can say it has its value.