Deep Image Poetry

Deep image poetry was part of the post–World War II, New American poetry inspired by the Beats and the Black Mountain School. The “deep” of deep image refers not to some attempt at political or philosophical “profundity” but to the “direction of seeing” (Rothenberg 31). It refers to the inwardness of the poetry, which plumbs the self in order to express, and perhaps transform, the world. The depth of the image is the measure of how far it can provide a link between the internal and external worlds.

The term deep image poetry refers to poems produced by a loose collection of poets spread geographically across the United States and chronologically over a period that included most of the 1960s and the early part of the 1970s. Mainly it refers to three groups surrounding Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg, and Robert Bly. What the three groups shared and what distinguished deep image poetry from other contemporary forms of poetry was, in the words of Dennis Haskell, the “rational manipulation of irrational materials” (142). The deep image poets tried to avoid highly polished philosophical poetry in favor of a poetry that expressed the chaos of the psychological world.


Robert Kelly

Given the manifold forms of psychological chaos, there is no such thing as a typical deep image poem. However, the description of the eponymous night in Robert Kelly’s “Of this night” (the first poem in Armed Descent [1961]) as something that comes alive with a “roar of things out of the streets” is typical of the interpenetration of the internal world of the psyche and the external world. In this case the idea or feeling of “night” has just been explicitly “covered with skin”— made into something internal that can exist outside— but it is still a confused and “savage” personification. “This night” takes its life from the internal life of the poet and provides, as a consequence, “an entrance to a living house”—an entrance by way of the night and the poem, to the inner world of the speaker.

Individual poets had been writing poetry that could be called deep image poetry for some years, but they were not identifiable as a coherent group until several of them were included in Donald Hall’s 1964 anthology Contemporary American Poetry. Rothenberg had coined the term in 1960: It is a significant part of a published letter to Robert Creeley in which Rothenberg explains the principles underlying his own poetic practices. Kelly picked up on the term, and deep image poetry is the subject of two theoretical notes in Kelly’s Trobar journal as well as, arguably, the primary content of the poetry journal.

No single event marked the end of deep image poetry, but as the 1970s wore on the term became more open to parody and met with increasing disapproval from both critics and early exponents, who felt that the earlier styles, subjects, and tones of the poetry had become superficial and clichéd. In 1976 Robert Pinsky articulated this feeling in his book The Situation of Poetry, which critiqued the debased deep image poems that were by that time standard in contemporary books and magazines. Although this critique marked a decisive blow to those who were still identifying themselves as deep image poets in the late 1970s, in 1979 it was still possible for Haskell to refer, in an article in Southern Review, to deep image poetry as part of the “current state of American poetry” (137).

No single acknowledged manifesto defined deep image poetry in the way Charles Olson’s 1950 “Projective Verse” had declared the intentions of the Black Mountain School, or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956) had inspired the Beat poets. Since it was founded for neither ideological nor programmatical reasons, deep image poetry could comfortably include a bewildering variety of styles, content, and even personnel. It is evident in the pages of Trobar that, with no explicit membership criteria, poets became deep image poets by association. Not many of the larger group of Beats, apart from Gary Snyder, were in any way affiliated with deep image, but many of the influential poets formerly associated with the Black Mountain school can be found in the pages of cincluding Olson, Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan, and Edward Dorn.

Since the size and orientation of the three interwoven groups gathered around Rothenberg, Kelly, and Bly was continually changing, the membership of the “movement,” even at a given point in time, is difficult to delineate. It is important to note, however, that the three groups comprised separate poets and groups of poets whose ideas, writing and thoughts converged— they were not members of a single group that splintered through specific disagreements. Each of the groups had its own journal, but the poets in each group wrote, spoke, and contributed work to each other regularly.

The first of these groups, the neosurrealists, was gathered around Rothenberg and the journal he edited, Poems from the Floating World. Although he did not manifest this at the time, he later said that he always thought of the journal as an ongoing anthology of deep image poetry. Including David Antin, Armand Schwerner, and Jackson Mac Low, this group was particularly interested in tapping into “a general subjective life” (Haskell 142). In their schema, deep image poetry is an attempt to bring the personal (the specific) and the external (the general) into communication by using the image. Their poetry, especially that of Rothenberg, displayed a symbolist belief that the hidden world could be perceived through its external manifestations and that an image unifying the inner and outer could be found inside one’s own observations.

Rothenberg was fascinated by the potential of a deeply inward image to link the specific self to the general world. He quotes from French poet Charles Baudelaire to make his point that “the poem ‘will contain, at one and the same time, the object and the subject, the external world and the artist himself’” (32). His poem series “Whichever Road I Took, I Somehow Kept Coming Back to the Place Where I Had Started” (1961), published across Trobar 2 and 3, narrates the journey of a self in a “strange country” and the difficulty of relating to others in it. The series ends with “A word of greeting [that] passes when we touch,” suggesting that, with the word of greeting, the artist has somehow achieved a correspondence between the internal and external world.

The second group formed around Kelly and Trobar. Despite more optimistic intentions, Trobar was published only five times between 1960 and 1964, but it provided a central forum. It was edited by Robert and Joan Kelly along with George Economou and was dedicated to deep image poetry. In addition to poetry by Economou, Kelly, and Rothenberg, the output of this group included work by Diane Wakowski, Rochelle Owens, Clayton Eshleman, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Maragaret Randall, and Gerrit Lansing (all of whom contributed to two or more issues of Trobar). This was an even looser grouping than the neosurrealists. Trobar published two of the only theoretical notes (written by Kelly and Rothenberg) that discuss what might be meant by deep image poetry and what might be gained by its adoption, and so the journal makes for eclectic reading.

In his 1961 “Notes on the poetry of deep image,” Kelly makes clear that context is crucial: “Nothing can be known unless it is known in situ” (14). At the heart of his project is a hope that, by placing images in a poem where the context allows them to resonate through each other, deep image poetry can effect the “transformation of the perceived world.” For Kelly deep image poetry comes from an attempt, in language, to link together percepts, the basic units of perception— an impression of the senses in the mind. The image is “the clothed percept” (16). Perhaps closer to Olson than either Bly or Rothenberg, Kelly claims that the image is inextricably related to the line: “the image is the measure of the line” (16). It is not a single image that imbues the poem with power but the sequence of images for which the lines have been created: “The line is cut with the image in mind” (16).

Bly and James Wright were the main figures in the third group, which founded and published the Fifties (the journal subsequently became the Sixties and, briefly, the Seventies). According to Michael Davidson and Haskell, this group also included W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Hall, Mark Strand, and Louis Simpson. Bly was only reluctantly a deep image poet. He did not like the term and preferred to call it “leaping poetry” to distinguish it from the work of the Imagist school, which he thought was misguided. Bly was particularly interested in trying to combine inward reflection with a lightness and an energy that would then have a positive impact on and insight into the external world. He preferred to define the poetry in terms of its energy instead of its chosen image.

Bly thought of the image as a “physical thing”—“a body where psychic energy is free to move around.” For Bly “leaping” meant expressing energy in jumps of association that mapped out an image through a poem (“Looking” 4). He felt that contemporary poets were so overwhelmed by rules that they were no longer capable of recognizing the power of a thought: “It’s as if a bull woke up one day with so much energy, he ignored the fence posts and barn door of his pasture and created Assyria instead!!” (“Infantilism” 259). Despite the fact that the energy of “the bull” (the image) might let it define “Assyria,” his direct predecessors were obsessed with the “fence posts” and were unable to see the “bull.” For Bly “the bull” embodied the energy of a poem and defined it far more than the delineating “fence posts” of convention. The poet’s mandate was not to dwell within barn doors but to leap with the bull to map new realms symbolized by “Assyria.”

Bly claims that this “fantastic freedom of association” was evident in “ancient art” (“Looking” 6), but it was gradually excised from mainstream English poetry after “Chaucer and Langland” (4). All three groups were influenced by the Spanish example of duende (Federico García Lorca’s elusive term meaning something between “inspiration” and “energy”) and by examples of associative ability that come to us through modern psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, older poets like Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis, and William Blake, and contemporary poetry in other languages, most notably from Spanish—especially Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Antonio Machado, and Lorca, many of whom Bly translated for publication.

As part of its psychologized interest in the mind, deep image poetry was heavily influenced by foreign thinkers, writers, and spiritualists. Rather than trace its genealogy from contemporary English poetry, it saw itself as an inheritor of poetic/prophetic practice that, as has been mentioned, it shared with contemporary surrealist poets in French and Spanish and that stretched back through Martin Buber and Jung to visionaries like Blake and Jacob Boehme. This was a positive decision in favor of writers whose subjects and tone were more appealing, but it was also part of a rebellion against the strictures of New Criticism (see FUGITIVE/AGRARIAN SCHOOL) and its accompanying poetry.

Bly rebelled not only against established ideas of poetry but also against establishment politics. He wrote exuberant poems whose images leapt from personal psychology to the national psyche to global events. Initially these were humorous—such as when he describes how he had behaved when he was president: crushing snails barefoot, sleeping in his underwear, eating Cubans with a straw (“Three Presidents” [1968]). Increasingly, however, as with many deep image poets, his poems became infused with a bitterness about the involvement of the United States in Vietnam.

Among other poems from Bly’s The Light around the Body (1967), both “At a March Against the Vietnam War” (23) and “Driving through Minnesota During the Hanoi Bombings” (27) trace the movement of the image from the internal world to the domestic political world to global consequences. In “At a March” the speaker’s personal vision of feet moving turns into a collective burden—a “cup of darkness” inherited from the Puritans, “As they went out to kill turkeys.” Inexorably the same feet carry the reader to the time when, using the “cup of darkness,” the same collective makes war, “Like a man anointing himself.” “Driving” also traces the connections between a Minnesota summer and the Hanoi bombings. The ramifications of parties in Minnesota are felt as hangovers that end up “In Asia.” Self-disgust mixes with self-love in America so that although “We were the ones we intended to bomb!” an inexorable chain of events and images means that it is the “small rice-fed ones” who suffer.

The deep image movement was roughly contemporary with the war in Vietnam and became caught up in many aspects of it. The protests and social changes around the end of the Vietnam War had transformed the practice of the leading deep image writers in ways that varied from one to the other. As these originators moved on to follow their own diverging stylistic and political paths, derivative poets and poetry were left to carry on deep image poetry. With the ending of the war, a new paradigm was needed for American society and its poetry; although Haskell could still write of it in the present tense in 1979, deep image poetry had already ended by then as a viable movement.

Bly, Robert. “Infantilism and Adult Swiftness: An Interview with Ekbert Faas.” In Talking All Morning. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981, pp. 251–283.
———. “Looking for Dragon Smoke.” In Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations. Boston: Beacon Press, 1972.
Davidson, Michael. “American Poetry.” In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. pp. 47–66.
Haskell, Dennis. “The Modern American Poetry of Deep Image.” Southern Review 12 (1979): 137–166.
Kelly, Robert. “Notes on the Poetry of Deep Image.” Trobar 2 (1961): 14–16.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Pre-faces & Other Writings. New York: New Directions, 1981.
———. “Why Deep Image?” Trobar 3 (1961): 31–32.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Modernism, Poetry

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