How Poems Move #11

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

(Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Red and Abstract Painting)

I’ve been mentioning “literal” and “figurative” or “symbolic” images. Just to explain, quickly:

Imagery, it turns out, is enormously difficult to define, because it is so various, because the way the mind works out what words mean is so infinitely complex, and because we use words to mean more than one thing at the same time (red is a color; in a particular context red signifies blood and all the associations of violent bodily harm; in another context red signifies anger or bull fighting or a commercial drink also associated with a bull or a “surreal” effect, such as a red tree in a painting; and more). With students, I am emphasizing a basic distinction between a word that has a literal meaning and appears to have no additional value beyond its descriptive use for the sake of giving the reader something concrete to imagine, and a word (even the same word) that has a figurative function, and also perhaps a symbolic value (red could be used metaphorically, as in “Texas is a red state, but it may become purple”).  

These lines from Seamus Heaney’s “Death of Naturalist” illustrate the literal image:




The “figurative image” is easily illustrated by the last line of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem:



In this poem, red has become the color of what is not even mentioned: blood, which in turn stands for the violence of the boy’s death (“red” is a metonym, in this sense, substituting the color of blood for the blood itself, which in turn is a metonym for the violence that produced the blood, that is, the murder). The whole prairie is now red. The murder “colors” everything. The word “prairie” suggests a natural state of the land, before the whole history of Chicago, so it too, while signifying literally a certain kind of geology and weather and vegetation, also symbolizes the “heartland” of the settled United States. (And the rhymes in that poem, culminating in the largest of them, “prairie,” produce their own sequence of thoughts, beyond what the poem says.)   

-Reginald Gibbons