The Delicacy of the Image

by Gerry LaFemina 

Much has been said about the importance of the image to the poem. Images function as touchstones in poetry, they help create the landscape of the poem, provide a means by which the reader imagines the world and context of the poem’s thinking. They are the things that embody ideas, as it were, but they are also the things that shape the ideas for the reader. It’s no wonder that two of the twentieth century’s most important schools of poetry included the word image (Imagism and the Deep Image movement) or that Aristotle thought of metaphor as the most important skill a poet could have: metaphor allows image to stand in for an idea. As Stephen Dobyns puts it “the image half of the metaphor has the greatest possibility of touching the reader” (and thus work symbolically). A poem, in the end, is a formal assemblage of words—of sounds and meanings and images—and as such, the image cannot be isolated but has to be considered, too, as part of a whole. The overall effect of a poem, then, is the power of the images to bring about some understanding via the pleasures of language; one of our jobs as poets is to maximize both the pleasures and the effect for the reader.

Although many of the decisions we make in composing a poem may be unconscious, they are never arbitrary; and later in our process, as we edit poems, we are deliberately making choices to improve not only how we say what we’re saying but also clarifying for ourselves what we’re saying. We are strengthening the metaphorical relationship between images and ideas. Jane Bennett in Vibrant Manner talks about “the vitality of the material that constitute” an assemblage and mentions the Chinese notion of shi, which helps to

…illuminate something that is usually difficult to capture in discourse: namely, the kind of potential that … results from the very disposition of things. Shi is the style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or élan inherent to the specific arrangement of things.

There we have it again: Best words. Best order. As Mary Kinzie puts it in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry: “When metaphor is used well, the vehicle is seldom flat or single-valued; the images belonging to it have physical qualities that suggest a tenor of feeling or idea with more than one component.”

What does it mean to assemble our images? What does it mean to use a metaphor well?

It helps to remember the delicacy of our material. Because we work in words and not gauzy materials, we may think any word might do, and that if a noun alone doesn’t do the work, a modifier can add clarity. The computer allows us to move words easily, to see them in different places and different combinations so rapidly that we may forget the material power of language as we first experienced it when we fell in love with poetry, with the possibilities of words. Yes, our material is flexible and malleable and can perform many different functions, but we also have array of words that mean similar things for a reason. Language has the potential for amazing precision. As Carver notes, “It’s possible…to write about commonplace things and objects and using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—chair, a window-curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling, power.” He goes on to quote an Isaac Babel story in which we’re reminded that “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place.”

Such use of precision is an example of delicacy as established by the fifth definition of the word on “extreme sensitivity; precision of action or operation; minute accuracy.” The image, and how we present it, requires delicacy. In talking about Whitman, James Wright (that wily, deep imagist!) praised the poet’s “delicacy of music, of diction, and of form” and then offered this caveat: “The word ‘delicacy’ can do without formally rhetorical definitions; but I mean it to suggest powers of restraint, clarity, and wholeness.” The imagistic powers of words are limited or enhanced, Wright reminds us, by how we use them; that’s why it helps to be wary of adjectives and adverbs.

That said, I do think we need to consider the “formally rhetorical definitions” of delicacy here, because I think there’s much to be considered by the poet when thinking of the poetic image as a delicacy. For instance,’s first definition of the word I’ve already touched upon, and that is a “fineness of texture, quality, etc.; softness; daintiness.” Language, when used well, is delicate.  It may be simultaneously harsh, loud, and durable, but we should always consider the fineness of each word, too.

The second definition of the word is also important to keep in mind. This definition is more akin to what many of us think when we think of delicacies (particularly from delicatessens): “something delightful or pleasing, especially a choice food considered with regard to its rarity, costliness, or the like.” Remember, images spark the imagination, and because we associate this word with taste, delicacy reminds us that images are embodied in language that engages any of the five senses. By “delightful” I mean something different than pretty, but rather they must engage the senses in ways that are surprising, that literally are full of light in that they illuminate the thinking of the poem. When we encounter a poem such as “Piñata” by Christine Garren, we understand how images delight in this way:

Brief yet amaranthine,
what’s left is this
wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches where we went, those programs
left. And now, next door, the neighbor’s daughter
has a party every August
as her mother did. This year the strung-up animal is a donkey
being beaten
in the elms.

The opening line is abstracted and yet relates to a piñata. Then the metaphor surfaces: this is about a divorce/break up even though those words are never mentioned. Instead, the images tell us this:

… torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches we went, those programs…

What we see though, too, is not just the second definition of delicacy in play, but also the fifth in the way line breaks shape individual lines to make meaning so that implicitly “the churches” have been shoved “into a landfill,” representing the failure of a sacred trust.

This is all followed by the actual piñata, this one of a donkey, which is a deliberate choice (Does the speaker feel like an ass for believing in her marriage? Does she feel like a beast of burden?). And of course the speaker feels “strung-up” and “beaten.” Through their delicacy, the images do the work of illuminating the feelings of the speaker and allowing the reader to experience that illumination.

The crafting of this poem, though, also represents another definition of the images’ delicacy;’s third definition calls this “the quality of being easily broken or damaged; fragility.” In its only unique definition of the word, the American Heritage Dictionary notes “Fineness of appearance, construction, or execution; elegance” as a definition for delicacy (AHD’s fourth definition correlates with’s third). Both of these definitions are related, particularly when discussing poetry. It’s been said that a poem can’t be paraphrased. The way the images are structured in the lines as they are suggest any other reworking of the poem would damage its capacity of maximum effectiveness for the reader. Line three is powerful because we are set up for an actual piñata and thus “wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries” shocks us. What “torn valves and surgeries”? These images announce the metaphor, their delicate placement adds surprise and intrigue to the poem.

Definition four of delicacy is also an important aspect to how we think of the image’s function in a poem. “[T]he quality of requiring or involving great care or tact” is an important role. Metaphors must be precise; they must be apt. To go back to Dobyns “When someone accuses a poem of being vague, this often means that the object of a metaphor is unclear or that the relationship between object and image is imprecise. Vagueness is withheld information and usually no amount of thought will supply what is missing….” A poem’s images must—without being heavy-handed or too vague—carefully bring to light the relationship between object and idea.

In order to do this, then, the image and how it’s employed must be keen to the last definitions of delicacy, which are variants on the same theme: “fineness of perception or feeling; sensitiveness” and “fineness of feeling with regard to what is fitting, proper, etc.” The specific image allows us to perceive through its “fineness” a feeling, and this feeling is proper and fitting to what the poet is trying to express.

Poems themselves, in the end, are metaphors for experience, and as such they become experiences for both writer and reader. The images employed in the poem are delicate gears in the “machine made of words,” as Williams put it—the wrong gear, and the cogs don’t turn, or they do but at the wrong speed, or they wear out easily. It’s keeping in mind the sheer potential strength and weakness of the image in the assembled whole of the poem that makes us understand their delicacies, their strengths and weaknesses, their deliciousness.


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