May 18th Gibbons Ruark: Waiting for You with the Swallows

Today, I would like to talk about Image. How does a poet use it to express an idea, a feeling or a tone? Why use an image rather than just saying what needs to be said. Instead of saying, I was sad, showing us a drooping, dying tree in the middle of a burnt out field. What does the image give us, the readers, that the word does not?

But before I begin with that I wanted to start with the textbook’s definition (the textbook being An Introduction to Poetry, 7th ed., edited by X.J. Kennedy). The editor defines Image in the literary context as generally meaning “a word or sequence of words that refers to any sensory experience”. An image can be something that was seen (or experienced through the act of seeing it), heard (a sound of some sort), touched (a tactile sensation such as “a perception of roughness or smoothness” Kennedy, pg 73). We can also include odors or tastes “or perhaps a bodily sensation such as pain, the prickling of gooseflesh, the quenching of thirst… [or] the perception of thing cold.” Kennedy, pg 73.

In “Waiting for You with the Swallows”, the poet is expressing the beauty of his lover’s face with sight and sound images. Instead of saying, I see beauty in you or saying that she is as beautiful as a flurry of birds swooping around from steeple to steeple and thus naming the aspect he admires in her, he uses images to compare to her and talk about her physical aspects of her beauty. He goes from the city to her face and the sound of her voice and back to the city again. He goes from the boom and the bustle of the city, the “thunder” that comes “racketing through” to the quiet wingbeats of a flurry of birds which he sees “beyond [the] black/Empty branches”. He juxtaposes the black of the city with the light of the sky and then compares them to the shadow and the light passing across his lover’s face.

Both sight and sound are being used here to compare and contrast his lover with the city and to talk about how the city is making him wait for her with it’s distracting racket (as opposed to a quieter laughter that awakens him – both could wake him, but only one is less disturbing).

And once again at the end of the poem, we have another visual image of the swallows darkening the sky and then speaking to him of a time passed. The darkening could symbolize many things. Darken means to blot out the light, to take it away. Perhaps we are to infer that the lover has been taken away and because the city is the thing that holds the darkness, perhaps the city is the thing that has taken away the lover. Perhaps she is the one who is flying.

But why doesn’t the poet say this? Why instead talk about birds talking to him, talking about his former relationship? Why use birds as the medium of his lovers message to him? All that we know is that she’s gone and in her place are the birds. What does the image of birds give us the readers, that just telling us she has died or has left for a very long time, tell us? Could we imagine the lover as a bird, or transformed into a bird in the poet’s mind? Does this make her more than just someone who passed through his life, the many who have come and gone briefly or for very long periods of time, and instead a symbol of someone who meant something greater to him? Something that flew, something that filled his sky.

I can’t say for sure, I’m not the poet, but the poem does imply a sort of beauty, love, admiration and sadness through its images (the flight of the birds, the lighting of the face, the laughter of the voice, the darkening of the sky). It gives food for thought of how an image can make a feeling or idea more powerful than just a metaphor or a figure of speech.

Waiting for You with the Swallows
by Gibbons Ruark

I was waiting for you
Where the four lanes wander
Into a city street,
Listening to the freight
Train’s whistle and thunder
Come racketing through,

And I saw beyond black
Empty branches the light
Turn swiftly to a flurry
Of wingbeats in a hurry
For nowhere but the flight
From steeple-top and back

To steeple-top again.
I thought of how the quick
Hair shadows your lit face
Till laughter in your voice
Awoke and brought me back
And you stepped from the train.

I was waiting for you
Not a little too long
To learn what swallows said
Darkening overhead:
When we had time, we sang.
After we sang, we flew.


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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