No doubt many, if not most of us, have heard of Marshall McLuhan’s quote, the title of this post. McLuhan, a Canadian, was a Philosopher of Communication Theory. He spent much of his life in academia and authored many works of non-fiction, dipping into the world of various schools of art and the manner in which sensory stimuli affects a person’s perception of the ideas being communicated.
Just so, “The medium is the message,” implies that the use of a specific medium influences how the message is perceived. McCluhan believed that the focus of study should be the choice of medium rather than the content. In poetry, our medium is words. How might we use words to deliver a message?
A while back, I posted an article on imagism which treated of early 20th Century poets whose focus was purely on description. Among poets of this school we find William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and others. Williams’ famous poem, The Red Wheelbarrow, is most often cited as an example of imagistic poetry. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow…” but what exactly that might be, no one knows, even though it has been the subject of a number of scholarly treatises. Williams would tell us that the goal of his work is pure sensory description.
A more contemporary poet, James Merrill (1926-1995), whose work was tinged with autobiographical content and self-reflection, once said, “To tell about yourself, describe your room.” Taking it a bit further, we might add, “To talk about feeling, describe something else.”
Hilda Doolittle, who wrote simply under the name H.D., is often grouped with the imagists because of her effective use of sensory detail. But a thoughtful read of her descriptive poem, “Sea Violet” tells us much about herself: her strength despite a fragile appearance.
Victorian Poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who served as Poet Laureate of Great Britain during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, wrote an apocalyptic poem, the Kraken—a sea monster that represents the end of time.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Note that this creature is described completely in terms of its surroundings. Tennyson gives us only information about its environment until the final two lines when it is seen in the passive voice by angels and men before rising and dying. Every adjective in the poem refers to its surroundings, not to the thing itself.
Two of my favorite poets are Mary Oliver and Jane Kenyon. Oliver, in her 80’s, is still writing and publishing from the countryside of Massachusetts, whereas Kenyon died in 1995 in New Hampshire (at an early age) of leukemia. I have to confess I have volumes of their poetry anywhere in my home where I may have a moment to enjoy a poem or two. Both women have the ability to write what appears to be, at first glance, wonderful nature poetry—but then comes the zinger—a loaded message tucked away somewhere in the middle or in the wind-up surprise with subjects such a love, hatred, fear and death. These are poems that need to be read and studied multiple times in order to glean their full depth. If you are not familiar with them, I encourage you to take time to savor some of them.
From time-to-time, I find myself encountering poems of this caliber here in our dVerse poetry community, as happened recently with a visit to Jamie Dedes who hosts poetry at her website Musing by Moonlight/The Poet by Day. She has given me permission to share a recent poem with you:
The Blue Heron’s Flight
Once we two stood tall on a wet grassy river bank
where a hungry blue heron fished in the shallows
you were enchanted and pointed as it took flight
We clasped hands to heart, such was its poetry
We are gone now along with that hungry blue heron
gone now too are the sounds of the river, its creatures
the scent of the grasses and the flow of our attachments
Is this a sadness or a wonder?
© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved
Note how Jamie’s effective description of the heron communicates to us the feelings associated with memory and loss. Thank you, Jamie.
For our post today, I invite you to write a descriptive poem in which you will use images to describe a feeling, a truth you hold dear, a person, using primarily surroundings—in other words, an imagist poem that has an embedded message about whatever…
• Write your poem and post it on your website or blog.
• Copy and paste the direct URL of your poem, along with your name, in the Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post.
• Visit and comment on as many of your fellow participates as you can. “Likes” are nice, comments even better.
• Have an enjoyable evening/day of poetry. The specialty of the house today will be a Zinger. (I don’t know what’s in it. You surprise me!)
For dVerse Poetry Pub, I’m Victoria Slotto. I look forward to reading everyone’s work. I’m in the Pacific Time Zone, so it may be awhile before I catch up with you, but I’ll be there.