(~5 Minute Read)
A poem often starts as a singular image, a momentary expression of an impressionable scene or object on the poet’s mind. It speaks to them, whatever it may be, in a way that demands preservation and presentation in words. They want to share this image in their own way in which they experienced it, enlivening the image with a temperate bath of various senses to draw the reader into their understanding. To do this, the poet must employ not only a range of senses to draw them into the poem, but also give it life through using those images to enhance tone and theme.
As a base example for how this is done with an expert hand, Theodore Roethke’s Root Cellar provides a solid start. His poem comes alive with its imagery.
Root Cellar (1948)
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
At first the reader may notice; Roethke doesn’t rely on meter or rhyme to pace the poem. It’s free verse, not even maintaining the syllable count per line. And yet, it flows slowly and smoothly in its prosaic imagery that carry the reader off into a living jungle of stillness and rot. Every line is new image or a continuation of the previously introduced, letting the experience speak the message to the reader.
The very first line establishes the ‘living death’ aspect which is held through the poem. By letting the reader know that “Nothing would sleep in that cellar,” Roethke establishes that the inhabitants of the cellar, maybe even the structure itself, is constantly living and moving. He then contrasts this life with an image of rot: “dank as a ditch.” The room is wet, sweaty with the heat and slime one feels when they lay in an old run-off ditch. It’s alive, but uncomfortable. With the personification of the “bulbs…hunting” in the next line, it seems that even the unnatural, human developed objects are contributing to the action by being given an active role. They’re a source of light stifled by the darkness, eliciting the death tones of the uncomfortable ditch they are desperate to escape.
Descriptive word choice and simile bring the image of the next three lines alive. The loose reeds growing out of rotted boxes are likened to that of snakes in the jungle. The previous image of the wet ditch and the canopied darkness the bulbs experience set the large stage for the reeds to become animated. Roethke uses key words like “obscenely” and “evil” to add to the darkness, adding a macabre depth to the denizens of his fateful root cellar.
By the sixth line, Roethke moves beyond touch and sight to have the reader experience smell. In a fantastic use of the word “congress,” the poet establishes a buffet of smells for the reader to appreciate and fill the airspace of the envisioned root cellar with. His next line-up of objects rapid fire familiar feelings and smells of objects that have sat for too long. Roots and wood have become have eaten detritus and by the wet wood planks the reader can feel and smell that bacterial slime of old, wet wood being eaten away by detritivores as they await their inevitable fate.
Line ten gives the reader one last authorial interjection as to the theme. Roethke states “Nothing would give up on life” which tells the reader this is an uncomfortable existence. The rot is a perpetual blight on all the senses of the beholder. It repulses directly by making the reader experience uncomfortable natural items eating away at the human ones left in place to rot. By the final line, the dirt floor of the cellar is even a living creature. The image carries with it a perpetuity of life from the Earth contrasted on the abandon of human endeavors left behind. The root cellar was likely once a useful storage, but in its abandonment, it is in the process of being reclaimed. The images of repulsion have a natural draw of wonder in the darkness of a jungle. The cycles of nature will press on, reclaiming the still death of the human created cellar into a living and breathing ecosystem.
Roethke’s poem shows the reader how to effectively portray theme and tone through only a few dictatorial pushes from the author’s voice and primarily active imagery. The images take on multiple levels of interpretation and images, portraying both their literal image and their metaphorical likeness that gradually controls the themes. It’s a living, breathing creation through words that transports the reader an effectively transmits Roethke’s sensory intake.
In the reader’s own poetry, effective use of imagery like Roethke’s can be critical to the effectivity of the poem. For an image-centric poem, the images must speak for themselves. A multiplicity of meaning behind the images in conjunction with the other surrounding images allows the meaning of the poem to be derived through a metaphorical sense. With Roethke, the recurring contrast of life in death achieves verisimilitude through the conversion of human abandon back to natural conditions. The reader not only understands that the poet observes the thematic element, but first-hand experiences it with them.
This is the art to be mastered in image-centric poetry. Let the reader be devoured by the onslaught of imagery, exposing them to all the senses the poet desires to be immersive, then layer them together in progression to tell their own story. Let the images in conjunction speak for themselves as a group, entering only minor dictations on tonal direction. The poet should use key adjectives and adverbs for these descriptors sparingly, as to allow for subtlety. The best poems of these images are desirous of their readers to dig for their own conclusions. The poet, as Roethke has done with Root Cellar, shouldn’t cast too much directorial oversight, but instead give gentle nudges, allowing the reader the pleasure of developing meaning in the poem themselves.
The more active a participant a reader is, the more willing they are to except the poet’s experience developed for them on the page.
Roethke, Theodore. The Lost Son and Other Poems. Doubleday and Company, 1948.