IMAGISTS — A Reflection on “Polar Low” by Joseph Massey —

The Truth, The [Almost] Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

May 7th Snowstorm and Icy Fog (Judy’s Frontyard Photo)

Joseph Massey, “Polar Low”

Half-sheathed in ice

a yellow double-wide trailer

mirrors the inarticulate morning.

The amnesiac sun.

And nothing else

to contrast these variations of white

and thicket

choked by thicket

in thin piles that dim the perimeter.

Every other noun

frozen over.


After the socially, economically and politically impervious and uncompromising eras of the Victorian reign through WWI and then WWII, an entirely new class of disillusioned, idealistic and talented poets, novelists and playwrights arose and came to be known as the “Imagists.” A new modernity, even more stridently individualistic than the flappers of the 20’s, emerged.

Coming much later to the movement and having drawn inspiration from all of his predecessors, Joseph Massey, in his statement for the “Poetry Society of America,”(n.1) said:

“I still want to stop time, to frame it; but I’m interested in going for a walk in the poem, noticing one thing after another, all while paying close attention to the terrain of the language itself: sound and its colors, textures.”

The first in the list of the Imagist Manifesto is this:

“To use the language of common speech, but to employ the exact word, not the merely-exact, nor the merely decorative word.” (n.2)

Joseph Massey intended to go much further. After having lived in the large metropolitan cities of Philadelphia and then Dover, Delaware, he moved to Humboldt County, in Northern California, in what is lovingly called the “Golden Triangle” of cannabis cultivation, social freedom, and hippielife. He wrote that, in the cities, “There was always a sense of things falling over me, into each other, no room to breathe, let alone speak.” In Humboldt County, like so many before him, he found freedom and also his true poetic voice.

He wrote: “When I first moved to Humboldt County …I was confronted with a landscape that was — and still in many ways is — utterly foreign to me. The landscape is open — gapingly so — ocean on one side, mountains and hills on the other — and perpetually shifting in its timbre, in the quality of light. For a few years I felt like I had come down with vertigo; I was so jolted by this place with its nearly psychedelic three-dimensionality.”

These open and wild landscapes tend to overcome a poet, trying to express a coherent thought, as I well know because of where I have lived since moving from the big city to undeveloped forest in the late 1980’s, and nothing is ever the same from day to day. If you intend to trap and record a feeling, a thought, an image. It must be immediate or not at all. Tomorrow will be a new exigency of thought. That is nature’s way.

Massey said: “The poems took on the necessary length: brief. How else to chart the flashes of slips in consciousness, the blank-headed realization that you’re suddenly there, nameless yet wholly present, before the static of the everyday subsumes you.”

Thus, the imagist’s piles of little pieces of torn-off paper stuffed into every pocket and notebook. Snapshots becoming the poems that they yearn to be. Capturing only what is immediately visible or personally available to another of the five senses, and without judgment or emotional reaction. Just “what is.”

And personally, I have lived for six months out of the year since 1988 in whiteout conditions, where the snowdrifts and winter fogs and grey/white sky and snow-covered roads all blend into a blinding landscape only broken by occasional “thickets” of low trees, a house in the far distance over the fields, and maybe a deer struggling through the deep snow. The edge of the roads disappear, and it is easy to become trapped in a ditch and far from home. Immediate concentration is key to survival. My poetry has also become more imagist as life has become more challenging. That must be the way it is. Luxury encourages flamboyance and frivolousness. We no longer have time for those indulgences. The imagists understood that well, and tried to warn us. Massey’s poem of winter is bleak, indeed, and also true.