Closed and Open Images
28 July 2021
A closed image is one that leads the reader in a specific direction and offers a fixed vision of the world. For example, “White moths wing their snow / storm through the night” (Cage of Flame, below). One summer evening, a long time ago, when I was in Chatham, N.B., now Miramichi City, I saw white moths swarming beneath a street light. The air was thick with them and they circled and dazzled like falling snow. A reader may not catch this image first time through. However, after a couple of readings and a little thought the image makes perfect sense. Now add the personal dimensions. Have you had a similar experience? What associative fields do you structure around white moths > wing > their snow storm >? This is where the image opens up and becomes more personal. You may not have been in Chatham that night, but you may well have experienced something similar.
An open image is one that leads you outwards into your own world. “Now you are a river flowing silver beneath the moon” (Cage of Flame, below). Now the image is more open and asks questions of the reader. Who is the you referred to in the second word? Is it the reader? Is the narrator speaking to a third person? You are a river: how can a person be a river, more, can we be sure this you refers to a person? What else could it refer to? You are flowing silver: there is no sense of concrete meaning here. This is not a piece of information to be processed as you would process a headline in the newspaper (print or digital). What does it mean? I don’t know but, as Salvador Dalí said of one of his own paintings “I don’t know what it means but I know it means something.” And that something is the essence of poetry. That one word, river, will conjure up different images for each individual who reads the poem. River: which river does the poet mean? Is he referring to the Miramichi, the St. John / Wolastoq (Wəlastəkwewiyik means “People of the Beautiful River,” in Maliseet), the Thames / Támesis (to the Spanish who lived in London in 1560-1580), the Severn / Sabrina (to the Romans who invaded Britain in 55-54 BC) that divides Wales from England? And what happens when we restore the old names to the rivers that former generations, some of them our forefathers and foremothers named? How does it change our picture of the permanence of rivers and the impermanence of names and people?
Metaphors are always hard to understand. This is because they have no exact meaning and vary with each reader. Take a metaphor like icy fire. We know that ice can seem to burn the skin, but what does icy fire mean? Think of those drawings in which a vase becomes a face and the face metamorphoses into in a vase. Most people can see each image separately, but it is difficult to hold both shapes in the mind’s eye at the exact same time. The image flits between them with the result that the reader’s determining mind, the one that yearns for le mot juste, the exact meaning of words, is trapped between two mirrors and moves from the one to the other without being able to settle on either. This is what happens with metaphoric meanings: a flickering between the different terms of the metaphor and an inability to settle. Take this couplet, for example: “there is nothing so hot as the female desire, / as cold as new snow yet it burns you like fire” (In Praise of Small Women, El Libro de Buen Amor, Arcipreste de Hita, circa 1283 -1350, my translation). Such metaphors have been around for a long time, as has the juxtaposition between hot and cold, the Petrarchan ice and fire, used as a poet’s description of lovers.
No, poetry is not, definitely not, an exchange of information. It is more an exchange of dreams, cultures, multiple meanings, each constructed, de-constructed, re-constructed in the space between the minds of reader and writer. A poetry book is very similar to a river. You must take it on its own terms, adapt to it, work with it, run your fingers and hands in its waters, paddle in it, swim if you want to. You must do all of this on your own terms and in your own way. Whatever you do, don’t, don’t get out of your depth. And please, please, don’t let yourself drown. Just lay back on the water, look at the clouds in the sky, choose the ones you want to follow, and float a few minutes of the day away.