Deep Image Robert Bly and James Wright

In the 1960s and 1970s, the most prominent expression of the meditative impulse was the "Deep Image" movement. The poetry of Deep Image sought to use the visual image as a means of accessing deeper levels of feeling or consciousness, often in the form of sudden epiphanies or revelations of insight. In the words of Robert Bly, the Deep Image poem could be distinguished from the Imagism of the 1910s and 1920s by its use of the image to enact "psychic leaps" between the conscious and the unconscious. According to Bly's theory, the poet should not only attempt to capture images apprehended by the conscious mind, but should "ask the unconscious . . . to enter the poem and contribute a few images that we may not fully understand."

While the Deep Image poets shared certain elements with poetic Surrealism - including the desire to use the image to access deep or unexplored levels ofconsciousness - they did not go as far as the Surrealists in their attempt to overturn social and artistic convention or to challenge the rationality of poetic language and syntax. While we may find dreamlike or nightmarish scenes in the work of Deep Image poets, we do not find the type of free association or the kind of bizarre and shocking images found in Surrealist writing. Among the poets who have been associated with the Deep Image aesthetic, we can divide the field into those whose work comes closer to a

Surrealist mode (W S. Merwin, Mark Strand, James Tate, Charles Simic) and those whose work borrows surreal elements while remaining closer to a realist or descriptivist aesthetic (Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Gary Snyder, William Stafford). For the purposes of this chapter, I will focus on the poets of the latter group, since their work is more easily understood within the meditative tradition as it has been defined by American poets like Whitman, Stevens, Eliot, and Theodore Roethke.

The poems in Robert Bly's volume Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962) felt radically new to readers of the early 1960s, since they appeared to reject both the religious symbolism of Eliot and the overt Romanticism of Roethke. Bly's most famous poem, "Driving Toward Lac Qui Parle River," contains a notable lack of obvious narrative or psychic drama. The poem is written in an understated language and style, and its intense subjectivity is achieved within the context of a commonplace setting and event:

I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.

The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.

The soybeans are breathing on all sides.

Old men are sitting before their houses on carseats

In the small towns. I am happy,

The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

The small world of the car Plunges through the deep fields of the night, On the road from Willmar to Milan. This solitude covered with iron Moves through the fields of night Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

Here we find a relatively commonplace scene - a Minnesota bean-field at dusk - witnessed by the speaker driving in his car. The first two stanzas evoke a private, pensive, and calmly joyful mood. The mood is expressed largely through the poem's imagery. Although the description ofthe landscape plays a key role in the poem, the images which comprise this description do not aim at accuracy in objective detail. Instead, images such as "The soybeans are breathing ..." and "the small world of the car ..." reveal the speaker's emotional state, as the speaker's mood permeates the description of surrounding landscape. Even those images which are comparatively traditional seem highly selective, such as the reference to old men sitting on car seats and the moon above turkey sheds. We might say that subjectivity is welcomed into the poem; in one instance, the subjective element enlarges to such a degree that description lapses into declaration: "I am happy." The images become progressively more laden with emotional weight through the first two stanzas, from the stark recounting of fact in the opening line ("I am driving; it is dusk") to the extended image of the moving car presented in the final three lines of the second stanza.

It is in the third stanza that we shift from the use of more conventional images to the poem's "deep image," an almost magical description of the river with its small bridge and the people talking in the boat, just out of hearing:

Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,

And water kneeling in the moonlight.

In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;

The lamplight falls on all fours in the grass.

When I reach the river, the full moon covers it;

A few people are talking low in a boat.

The clue that we are now turning to the speaker's mystical vision comes with the word "suddenly." From here on, considerable effort is made to remove the division between objectivity and subjectivity. The speaker's solitude allows him to descend into a state of mind in which ordinary things suddenly become defamiliarized and are perceived in a new and unusual fashion. As in many Bly poems, things are seen as gravitating toward the earth, as if in a rejection of any gesture of transcendence. The houses are "built on the ground"; the moonlight is shining down upon the water; the people in the boat are below the road; and even their talking seems drawn down away from the speaker. The speaker's mystical vision comes to be expressed as physical proximity to the earth, a state in which aesthetic vision is possible. Many ofthe images intermingle elements ofboth speaker and world to express a deep union between the two. Even the name of the Lac Qui Parle ("lake which speaks") River - an actual river in western Minnesota - has an important symbolic significance. The river is felt to be speaking or communing with the poet/narrator, communicating an intuitive sense of nature's purpose.

Bly also heightens his poetic rhetoric through the use offigures ofspeech which contribute to the meditative feeling. In two striking metaphors, water "kneel[s] in the moonlight" and lamplight "falls on all fours in the grass." The meditative quality of the poem is enhanced by its syntax as well. The flatness of syntax and language throughout the poem draws our attention more strongly to the images and metaphors, and the spareness ofthe syntactic connections brings a sense of simplicity and rightness to the poem.

This deliberate use of syntax for poetic effect can be seen in the first three lines of the third stanza, which begin with the elliptical structure of "Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge." We feel along with the speaker the suddenness of this unexpected sight, which when combined with the personification of the river in the next line offers a strong visual impression.

In contrast, the repeated monosyllables and somewhat elongated syntactic movement of the third line (the longest of the stanza) provide a larger view of the landscape. The almost childlike observation of the houses being built "right on the ground" (as opposed to the more elevated houses in cities) involves another shift in the reader's consciousness. In the context of the poem as a whole, this image can perhaps qualify as a "deep image," one which resonates with the poem's other images of depth and downward movement.

The mood ofthe speaker also evolves in the course ofthe poem. The first stanza establishes a contented mood as the speaker is seen driving in his car: this mood is reflected in the pastoral imagery and the explicit declaration of happiness in the penultimate line. In the second stanza, however, the mood becomes more ominous, as the speaker focuses on darkness and isolation. It is no longer "dusk" but "night." Correspondingly, the diction is more fraught with tension: the word "plunges" suggests a possibly violent act, and "penetrates" can suggest negative connotations. There is also an absence of visual images in the stanza, and the only aural image is the faint sound of the crickets outside the car.

In the third stanza, the mood shifts once again, but this time there is no explicit statement of the speaker's emotion as in the first stanza. The deeper and more meditative emotion here is established by the suggestion of nearness and contact with things in the world. The stanza begins with the word "nearly," which gives both a sense of expectation and a feeling of proximity to something of importance. The poet has almost reached his goal (the town ofMilan), and at the same time he is nearing a more essential aim. The sound of "nearly" is repeated in "kneeling" in the second line, a word suggesting prayer. The full moon "covers" the river, an image which can be either maternal (a mother covering her child with a blanket) or sexual. These images of protectiveness, acquiescence, and contact inform the final line, in which the poet hears the voices of people talking in a boat. Through the use ofthis understated image, Bly seems to be suggesting a kind of community or communion. Yet the poet remains somewhat apart from that human communication; he hears only the sound of the talking, not the actual words. The ambivalence in the poet's final vision differs markedly from the sense of an achieved revelation at the end of both Eliot's and Roethke's poems.

James Wright is the other poet most closely associated with the poetry of Deep Image. Wright's poetic training - first as an undergraduate student of John Crowe Ransom, and then as a graduate student under Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington - prepared him for a career as a formalist in the New Critical mode. In his first two volumes - The Green Wall (1957) and St. Judas (1959) - he wrote in a style derived from Robinson, Frost, and Roethke. The Branch Will Not Break (1963) was a breakthrough volume for Wright. Inspired by his friendship and collaboration with Bly (they translated such poets as Neruda, Vallejo, and Trakl together), he abandoned traditional forms and began to express his feelings more directly, at once relaxing and modernizing the language in which he wrote. Wright felt that his work in a traditional style had reached a "dead end," and that while he had written poetry that was "very strict and careful in its form," he had left out "so much of life." He had been "trapped," he claimed in a letter to Roethke, "by the very thing - the traditional technique - which I labored so hard to attain." The idea of the limitations imposed by poetic form was hardly a new one - Pound had come to much the same realization a half century earlier - but each generation of poets must go through the same process of discovery. In the early 1960s, Wright succeeded in breaking through the "ten-mile-thick granite wall of formal and facile 'technique' " that was imprisoning him.

In a poem like "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," Wright's style went beyond even Bly's in its apparent simplicity.

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly, Asleep on the black trunk, Blowing like a leaf in green shadow. Down the ravine behind the empty house, The cowbells follow one another Into the distances of the afternoon. To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines, The droppings of last year's horses Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on. A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. I have wasted my life.

The poem's narrative situation is extremely straightforward. The speaker lies in a hammock on a late afternoon, observing and listening to the world around him. As he becomes increasingly absorbed by the act ofobserving his surroundings, he makes the sudden realization that he has, as he bluntly puts it, "wasted his life." Clearly, the interpretation of the poem hinges on our understanding ofthis final line and its implications, though our appreciation of the poem need not end there. Wright himself commented on the line in the following way:

I think that final line - "I have wasted my life" - is a religious statement, that is to say, here I am and I'm not straining myself and yet I'm happy at this moment, and perhaps I've been wastefully unhappy in the past . . . and in my blindness, I haven't allowed myself to pay attention to what was around me.

Wright's identification of the line as a religious statement points not to any particular set of religious or spiritual beliefs, but to a universal human capacity for the kind of sudden insight or epiphany described. In Bly's early review of the poem, he pointed to a psychological reading as well: the speaker's realization that he had "found nothing in his life to be sure of, that he had arrived nowhere," was achieved by a process of self-analysis that required "slipping past the defenses of the ego." What makes this poem particularly appealing as an expression of self-discovery is the combination of universality and specificity. The central idea may be general, but the images that lead up to it are detailed and specific. Even the title, with its specification ofthe fact that the speaker was lying in a hammock on the farm of a person named William Duffy (and not just in any hammock on any farm) and that that farm was located in Pine Island, Minnesota, provides a necessary counterbalance to the very general statement of the last line. The idea of the poem is not simply that we should spend more time lying in hammocks, but that the particularity of our experience is crucial to our ability to break through to a new awareness.

Let us look at the specific images Wright uses to structure the poem. There are four main images presented, each divided syntactically and spatially from the others. The first is the butterfly he sees sleeping on the tree above him; the second is the sound of the cowbells in the ravine behind the house; the third is the droppings of last year's horses, seen to his right; and the fourth is the chicken hawk floating over him and "looking for home." Each image is heightened by the use of figurative language: the butterfly is compared to "a leaf in green shadow"; the cowbells act as metonymies for the cows themselves which "follow one another" down the ravine; the horse droppings blaze metaphorically into "golden stones"; and the chicken hawk is personified as "looking for home." Though narratively the poem falls into four sections ofroughly equal length, there is an important change in the syntax at the end, where each sentence is given its own line. Thus the final three events of the poem - the arrival of evening, the passage of the hawk, and the speaker's realization of having wasted his life - receive additional emphasis.

The range of symbolic meanings that have been assigned to Wright's images indicate the extent to which - as we have already seen in the work of Bly - the "deep" image can take on a symbolic function. The chicken hawk, for example, like the famous hawk at the end of Whitman's "Song of Myself' who "swoops by and accuses" the poet, is clearly linked with the speaker himself. The hawk "floats," suggesting an affinity with the speaker's motion in the hammock, but he is also "looking for home," just as the speaker appears to be lost in his search for a meaningful existence. Significantly, the house mentioned in the poem is "empty": the world of human society can provide no answers for the poet/speaker. We also find a symbolism in the linked pattern of the images themselves. The butterfly is "bronze," its metallic appearance analogous to the metallic clinking of the cowbells and to the "golden stones" into which the horse droppings are transformed. This metallic imagery suggests permanence and value, but Wright does not seek to transform the natural world into emblems ofartistic creation as Yeats does in his Byzantium poems. Both the butterfly and the horse droppings remain essentially part of nature: the butterfly is in "green shadow," suggesting the potential for generation, and the droppings indicate a process of decay that is itself productive of new life.

The final line clearly comes as a surprise, both in the suddenness of its utterance (there has been nothing in the poem so far to prepare us for this kind of self-revelation) and in its verbal abruptness. Wright does not say, for example, "I now realize that I have wasted my life," or "the beauty and tranquillity of nature remind me that my life until now has been wasted"; instead, he puts his most important statement in succinct terms that make no pretense of being "poetic." We are woken from the spell cast by the poem, and perhaps awoken to another level of consciousness about our own existence.

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Responses

  • Bruto
    What is a deep image poem?
    2 years ago
  • Rosa
    What kind of poem is driving toward the lac qui parle river?
    2 months ago

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