Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Image and the Item

We make ourselves pictures of the facts.

I am thankful for Jay's question a couple of weeks ago about "the conditions (assuming they can be defined) which permit something to qualify as a full image" because it has given me so much to think about. I think I might have something halfway coherent to say about it now.

The first thing I want to note is the adjective "full", which I also used in the original post. I had talked about "full imagery" in contrast to the, as it were, "mere" aesthetic feeling of Kitasono's sample line

a shell, a typewriter and grapes

But I think it is important to remember that the items on this list are quite real, and the words themselves are "fully" meaningful. There seems, then, to be two sets of conditions: those that permit something to qualify as an item on a list and those that permit it to qualify as an image in a poem: indeed, we can say that what we're after here is the distinction between "mere" lists and "full" poems. And Kitasono's procedure is very interesting because it suggests that it is possible to produce imagery, and to go on to produce ideoplasty (or what he called "orthodox poetry"), by the accumulation of lists, i.e., by the concatenation of items.

Some will pause at the other words we seem compelled to use to state this problem, as I do. The conditions in question are to "permit" imagery, by "qualifying" something. We can ask, what is this "something" when divested of the relevant conditions? What is it qualified to be? I think we can proceed experimentally here.

Put three grapes on a white plate.

I am asking you actually to do this, or to do something that is, for all phenomenological intents and purposes, similar (put a couple of round purple somethings on a flat white something . . . or something.) It is not enough that you imagine it because that would of course beg the question.

You're stuck with the image as long as you look at this plate. Cover the plate with a napkin (or something). The image is lost but the items remain there under the napkin. My question now is whether something comparable can be achieved with words. I think Kitasono managed it.

The individual words, "shell", "typewriter", "grapes", evoke images immediately, but when listed along with the conjunction "and" we can't get our minds easily around what is supposed to be happening. That is, when listed, they become items. Now, consider our experiment in terms of a "mere" list

three grapes and a white plate

Well, this is qualitatively almost as good as

three grapes on a white plate

which is to say, it "qualifies as an image". Why? Because the grammar of these words themselves, "grapes" and "plate", so to speak, put the grapes on the plate for us. This sort of thing is no doubt what poetry teachers make a great deal out when trying to explain the brilliance of William Carlos Williams' art of lineation. Kitasono carefully selected words that are held together only by a vague aesthetic feeling, if at all.

I will say more on this tomorrow.


Laura Carter said...

Perhaps you are my ideal lineation expert. If you ever have time, I'd love to read some posts on it.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Will do. Thanks. By the way, I never got around to commenting on your "Advent of Breaking Open". Interesting exercise. I liked the second version (lineating more or less according to ordinary grammar) best. It may be realize something. Even when lineating based on prose units (like whole sentences) -- which is how my untested poem also works (with one exception) -- it is sometimes necessary to lineate even at these obvious joints. "Untested" wouldn't work as four prose paragraphs, and "Advent" wouldn't work as one.

Thomas Basbøll said...

"It made me realize something," I wanted to say.

Jay said...

Because the grammar of these words themselves, "grapes" and "plate", so to speak, put the grapes on the plate for us.Hmmm. So I'm still wondering whether all that's missing from "a shell, a typewriter and grapes" is the verb (explicit or implicit). The "on" in "three grapes on a white plate" seems to imply that the grapes have been put there - that they have been arranged (intentionally or by circumstance). If the verb is all that's missing, then I wonder whether we're just re-articulating the grammatical axiom that complete thoughts need both a subject and an action. (I actually don't, by the way, think that your discussion reduces to such a simple re-articulation, but I'm not sure that the "three grapes on a white plate" demonstrates that it doesn't).

Thomas Basbøll said...
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Thomas Basbøll said...

It seems to me there are three distinct ways of articulating words at work here: conjunction (X and Y and Z), preposition (X on Y with a side of Z), and predication (X and Y are on the Z). And I think a "complete thought", which is to say a standard subject-predicate construction (a sentence), will often involve an image and may even imply one (of the fact we're thinking of, Wittgenstein might say). What I want to suggest, however, is, first, that you can have imagery without predication (preposition is enough) and, second, picking up on Kitasono's hints in this direction, that you can even have imagery without preposition (conjunction is enough).

What I wanted to show with "three grapes and/on a white plate" was that some words implicitly "prepose" the items (or perhaps simply "pose" or arrange them) by the usage common to the words. You say "plate" and we're waiting to see what's ON it. You, rightly I think, point out that the grammar is even more compulsively standard in this case. We're waiting to PUT something on the plate. So I may need to come up with another example.

In the end, I want to understand the image as something that is not yet a thought nor a feeling but the material out of which we construct them. The thing I noticed about "Untested" (now renamed) and Laura's "Advent" was that you can accomplish imagery also out of thoughts and feelings (expressed in ordinary prose sentences) by arranging them in ways that, so to speak, undermine their logic and pathos, placing their imagery in pure (imaginary) suspension.

Or something like that.