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Constructing the Image: Parallels Between Pointillism and Poetry

By: Robert Eastwood

Barnes Foundation

Although he considered painting a “nobler” art, the polymath Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Connection between the two art forms has a long history, perhaps not as long as the mental arc that connects human senses. Though graphic and literary art take different sensual avenues to the mind, their mental embodiments overlap in what can be generalized as “the image.” There is a strong similarity in the 19th century painting technique popularly called pointillism, which creates an image in the mind through adjacent dabs of color, and the construction of mental imagery by way of rich, figurative (as in poetic) language.

Over twenty years ago my wife and I went to the National Gallery in Washington D. C. to see an exhibition of French paintings from the Barnes Foundation. Though the late Dr. Barnes’ indenture prohibited his collection’s paintings from being loaned, a desperate need for funds to renovate the Barnes Foundation Gallery forced the Trustees to loan pictures to the National Gallery exhibition. That we could see the collection’s impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings while we were on holiday delighted us.

I was particularly interested in the Lautrecs and the Cezannes, but when I saw Georges Seurat’s huge painting, “Models” (Poseuses) (1886-1888), I could not pull away. The painting is roughly 6 feet by 8 feet, and seemed to flicker under the gallery lights. When I drew close (as close as allowed), there were only tiny dots of paint in a closely packed field, but when I drew back a room of nude models formed into an image, and on a backdrop wall within the painting, another huge painting, Seurat’s, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884-1886) was hanging in the painting’s manifold world. The effect was mesmerizing, reminding me vaguely of a perception test I took in college, one demonstrating color vision, and how, if one is able, the mind makes sense of an optical jumble.

I learned later that Seurat called his technique—not pointillism as popularly thought—but chromuluminarism. Pointillism developed with another style, divisionism, defined by the use of dots of paint, not necessarily focused on the separation of colors. Be that as it may, the consequence of this painting technique is a luminosity not seen in a painting where colors are merged. The mind does the merging through an optical transformation of adjacent dots into objective form. For simplicity we’ll call Seurat’s technique pointillism.

Our means of interpreting reality (or semblance of reality) is through our senses. Consider the rainbow. It is not out there, a pretty arc in the sky, reaching high then delving at each far end into the earth. Rather, it is an optical phenomenon, existing on the retina (or, by extension, the sensitive surface of film or digital sensor), an image experienced through the conjoined stimulus of nerves, pixels, or chemical attributes. It is an image created in the mind by the conduit of optical sensation.

Luminosity, in itself a metaphor, is present in good poetry, of course, but the corridor to that vibrant light is not through the eye alone, but through a merging of aural and optical sensation, and beyond that, a synthesis of all the senses in synesthesia. The poet Kay Ryan speaks of something she calls “recombinant rhyming,” where bits of rhyme are spread throughout her poems—not as line end-stops—but rather mixed within the lines, so that she achieves “a certain luminosity”––a delightful flicker in the mind’s aural sensation.

I suppose you could call this luminosity an image…but what is an image, what is imagery? Something that evokes the five senses, singly or in combination? The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics throws up its erudite hands at the possibilities andsays that a poetic image is “variously, a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech; a concrete verbal reference; a recurrent motif, a psychological event in the reader’s mind; the vehicle or second term of a metaphor; a symbol or symbolic pattern; or the global impression of a poem as a unified structure.”

Is it probable that poetic imagery is a sort of oxymoron, where entirely different media, such as painting or another visual art, parks itself in the mental zone of verbalization? Perhaps, but does that make it any less useful as terminology for the felt response to certain associative stimulus?

The Poetic Dictionary provides a less catholic definition for what we are thinking about: “Image, Imagery: A mental picture, a concrete representation of something; a likeness the senses can perceive.”

The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms calls the image, “a pictorial likeness, literal or figurative, that illustrates an idea, object, or action by appeal to the senses.” Imagery is defined as, ”the use of pictures, figures of speech, or description to evoke action, ideas, objects, or characters. The term ranges in meaning from the use of a single IMAGE or detail to the accumulative effect of a poem’s figurative devices that imply THEMATIC STRUCTURE.”

A synthesis of the latter two definitions leaves us with the common ground of “mental picture” or “pictorial likeness.” Both also suggest that an image is what the “senses can perceive” or something that “appeals to the senses.” This covers a broad spectrum.

Talk of image and imagery, within the framework of art, brings to mind the Imagists, that group of poets Ezra Pound christened les Imagistes in the early 20th century.

Pound defined the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex [used in the sense of a “psychological complex”] in an instant of time.” As previously seen, this definition fits loosely with the somewhat amorphous set of definitions discussed previously. Pound propounded three specific principles, however, for writing an Imagist poem:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compare in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

These rather cryptic principles produced a variety of interpretations, even among the group of poets that called themselves Imagists. The confusion led Pound to attempt some explanation (in The Fortnightly Review, September 1914). Indeed, the more he elaborated his intent the more he found himself leaving the constriction of “Imagism,” and launching a new idea he called “Vorticism.”

“The image is the poet’s pigment. The painter should use

colours because he sees it or feels it…It is the same in writing poems, the author must use his image because he sees it or feels it, not because he thinks he can use it to back up some creed…An image, in our sense, is real because we know it directly.”

He goes on to describe how the principles have evolved for him into “Vorticism.”

“The Vorticist uses the ‘primary pigment!’ Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary images as ornaments. The image is itself the speech. The point of Imagism is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image is the word beyond formulated language.”

Pound then declares, “The Image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a Vortex, from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.”

Pound’s famous one image poem (hence primary, not spread into secondary images) is worth showing here, for it demonstrates his method, that of “trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals, on a wet, black bough.

If all this sounds a bit abstruse, and that Pound is reaching to extricate himself from the strictures he proclaimed in his original “principles,” so did Amy Lowell, an early Imagist poet. She attempted to clarify the ideas of Imagism in a preface to an anthology she published in 1915 (Some Imagist Poets). Her take on Imagism is somewhat different to Pound’s. She lays out six guiding principles of the movement (one senses the tether so many “principles” probably had in a movement propounding freedom!).

“1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly exact, nor merely decorative word.”

(Pound’s antecedent principle was: “To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.”) Lowell explains that by common speech she means “a diction which carefully excludes inversions and the clichés of the old poetic jargon [All the old diction of poetry in prior centuries––old faded expressions, etc.] Importantly, she concedes that common speech does not exclude imaginative language, or metaphor, “but it must be original and natural to the poet…not culled from older books of verse.”

By exact word, she means “the word that conveys the writer’s impression to the reader.”

“2. To create new rhythms as the expression of new moods––and not to copy old rhythms which merely echo old moods…cadence means a new idea.”

Lowell asserts the freedom to create new forms, free verse rather than metrical verse. But “The Imagist poets do not insist upon free-verse as the only method of writing poetry.”

“3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject.”

She amends that by adding, “within the bounds of good taste.”

“4. To present an image (hence the name: ‘Imagist’). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous.”

In a crucial clarification, Lowell says, “Imagism refers more to the manner of presentation than the thing presented. It is a kind of technique rather than a choice of subject…a clear presentation of whatever the author wishes to convey…Imagism is presentation rather than representation.”

“5. To produce poetry which is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.”

Ornament may be employed, so long as it follows the structural bases of the poem.”

“6. Concentration is the very essence of poetry.”

In other words, don’t ruin a poem with too much discursiveness––know when to stop.

Lowell boils it all down to a succinct statement: “Simplicity and directness of speech; subtlety and beauty of rhythms; individualistic freedom of idea; clearness and vividness of presentation; and concentration.”

Are the precepts of Imagism, whether Pound’s originals or Lowell’s revisions, inconsistent with the idea that effective use of poetic language––the artful application of sound, meaning and vividness––stimulate images akin to those produced by visual art? I think not. Can we therefore conclude that any poetic passage that evokes any of our senses is imagery?

Imagery, as seen in any literary text, is an author’s use of vivid and descriptive language that appeals to the senses––notably the optical and auditory. Vivid and descriptive language, in all its compounds of meaning and sound, has the effect––much as the rainbow––of creating pictures in the mind. Out of these fundamental “pictures” come ideas or other connotative evocations. Imagery, however, can be more complex than just a “picture.” Imbedded in the meaning of words are stimuli across all of the senses––not just the optical and auditory. Images that appeal to touch, to taste, to smell are potentially evoked by rich description.

Back to the experience in the National Gallery with Seurat. I learned that these pointillist paintings took two years to complete, and that they entailed meticulous planning and extraordinary patience. After all, millions of dots were involved, and the choosing (composing) of these small distinct points involved decisions as to what primary colors to use to create the impression of secondary and intermediate colors. The colors are mixed in the viewer’s mind and not physically on the canvas. The image a pointillist painting ultimately creates in the mind is the result of an optical trick (the rainbow effect), but is strongly akin to what poetic imagery creates: a mental picture.

Now I’d like to underscore something in the very nature of poetry that I believe is analogous with pointillism: the combining of words or their sound components (consonants, vowels, dipthongs, gerunds, syllables), hyphenated or not, to create mental imagery. Sometimes these combinations evoke hybrid sensations, such as in the phrase, prickly-sour, where the sensations of touch and taste and/or smell are merged to create a mental image (one that is familiar, but without a word of its own)––a metaphorical image to be sure.

Descriptive, concrete details are the elements within a poem or prose piece that are the conduits of sensation, i.e. imagery. On the fringes of this concept of imagery there exists what T. S. Eliot so famously described as the “objective correlative” (Hamlet and His Problems). Eliot used the term to refer to the mechanism by which emotion is evoked in an audience.

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’, in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

The emotions, or feelings evoked by vivid and descriptive language, are secondary in the sense that they arise as a consequence of initial imagery. The mind interprets, feels, deduces. These mental activities may seem instantaneous, but they follow the initial stimulus provided by descriptive and figurative language.

I would like to cite two comparable examples of vivid and descriptive language, the first from the prose of Vladimir Nabokov, and the other from the poet, Amy Clampitt:

“A moment later my first poem began. What touched it off? I think I know. Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief—the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes: I say ‘patter’ intentionally, for when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip all together in as crude an imitation of the recent downpour as the stanza I was already muttering resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced when for a moment heart and leaf had been one.”

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Besides the lush description, this autobiographical excerpt depicts the generation of Nabokov’s first poem. Vivid description is thus made synonymous with the poetic impulse. Now compare Nabokov’s overwrought focus on delicious detail to that in a poem by Amy Clampitt:


The Cormorant In Its Element


That body potbellied arrow, wing-pumping along

implacably, with a ramrod’s rigid adherence,

airborne, to the horizontal, discloses talents

one could never have guessed at. Plummeting


waterward, big black feet splayed for a landing

gear, slim head turning and turning, vermillion-

strapped, this way and that, with a lightning glance

over the shoulder, the cormorant astounding-


ly, in one sleek, involuted arabesque, a vertical

turn on a dime, goes into that inimitable

vanishing-and-emerging-from-under-the briny-


deep act which, unlike the works of Homo Houdini,

is performed for reasons having nothing at all

to do with ego, guilt, ambition, or even money.


The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt

Clampitt has the same hyper-perception, as seen with Nabokov, the same semantic agility in describing it, and also what Dr. Hugo Heyrman (in his “Art and Synesthesia”) calls “Poetic synesthesia: a semantic metaphoric fusion, to create a virtual image.” You don’t need to be a synesthete however to feel soundsform a mental image. The recurrent consonants (“big black feet splayed for a landing”), the word combinations (“vermillion-strapped,” “potbellied arrow, wing-pumping”) contribute to the semantic-aural-metaphorical fusion into imagery, a simulacrum of pointillism in a poem.

Amy Clampitt was the proverbial late bloomer, publishing her first poem (in the New Yorker) at age 57, and at 63, her first of five books in 1983 (The Kingfisher). She died of cancer in 1994. The Kingfisher had a brilliant debut, praised by the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. The critic Helen Vendler lauded her work, calling it a relief from what she called the prevailing esthetic, where poetry sounded, “as if the poet had taped his own telephone conversation.” Clampitt’s poetry, though seldom formal, has a rhythmic, floral music, rich in literary allusions, and avoids the confessional. Her style is exuberantly descriptive, and as a friend (Phoebe Hoss) characterized, she was “galvanized by nature.” In an age of loose forms—free verse, prose poems, and plain styles—she sang the musically evocative, the neo-baroque.

When asked about form and the “tin-ear” prevalent in modern free verse (a Paris Review interview in 1991), Clampitt admitted her poetry was largely free verse, but “I like to think I have an ear for language, and certainly I write for the ear, so it would seem to be that melody and rhythm keep a poem going for me rather than anything identifiable as form…I suppose Hopkins is the real enabler…Lately I’ve been more conscious of the example of Whitman than anyone else.” Clampitt is quoted as saying: “the music is a vibration in the brain rather than in the ear.”

In the same interview she went on to say, “what attracted me immediately to the poems of Keats, and later of Hopkins, is the way they draw on and evoke physical sensation in all its luscious variety.” She mentions being drawn by the “particularity of detail” in Marianne Moore––“not only [do I] admire but am conscious of having drawn on [it] as an example.”

Gerald Manley Hopkins is a poet Clampitt is “conscious of revering more than any other…Hopkins comes first because I simply can’t imagine having become a poet without having read his work––the delight in all things physical, the wallowing in sheer sound, in the extravagance of the possibilities of language. For me there is still nobody like him….” One certainly sees this evidenced in her poetry.

It might be well to share an old favorite by Hopkins to amplify Clampitt’s words; but also, to illustrate the language reverence and sound effects seen in both Hopkins and Clampitt.


Pied Beauty


Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim’

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls’ finches’ wings’

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough’

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.


What better analogues to the paint dots in a Seurat painting are the word combinations, mostly adjective-noun, in evoking through sound a startling imagery? Compare the music in Pied Beauty to one of Clampitt’s poems:


Botanical Nomenclature


Down East people, not being botanists,

call it “that pink-and-blue flower

you find along the shore.” Wildflower

guides, their minds elsewhere, mumble

sea lungwort or oysterleaf” as a label

for these recumbent roundels, foliage

blued to a driftwood patina

growing outward, sometimes to the

size of a cathedral window,

stemrib grisaille edge-tasseled

with opening goblets, with bugles

in miniature, mauve through cerulean,

toggled into a seawall scree,

these tuffets of skyweed

neighbored by a climbing tideline,

by the holdfasts, the gargantuan lariats

of kelp, a landfall of seaweed:

Mertensia, the learned Latin

handle, proving the uses of taxonomy,

shifts everything abruptly inland,

childhoodward, to what we called then

(though not properly) bluebells;

spring-bottomland glades standing upright,

their lake-evoking sky color


a trapdoor, a window letting in distances

all the way to the ocean––

reaching out, nolens volens,

as one day everything breathing

will reach out, with just such

bells on its fingers, to touch

without yet quite having seen

the unlikelihood, the ramifying

happenstance, the mirroring

marryings of all likeness.


The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt


Clampitt paints with words, which are packets of sound and meaning. This extends to the constituent letters, the sound elements of words––the vowels in assonance, the consonants in consonance, diphthong thrusts, and gerund twangs––they are the pigments on the palette of poetry (to paraphrase Pound), merging the ear and the eye, the sensations of taste and touch, and through music creating a felt-imagery. As da Vinci rightly said ”… poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”





Robert Eastwood’s work has appeared in many journals, recently in The Dirty Napkin, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Full Of Crow, Legendary, Softblow and Loch Raven Review. His chapbooks, The Welkin Gate, Over Plainsong, Night of the Moth are by Small Poetry Press. He has twice brushed past the Pushcart Prize.


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