Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 27, 2013

Abiding Images

flowerDream analysts claim we all have recurring images that abide with us throughout our lives, images that shape our psyches and personalities.  Some of these images are universal and symbolic, representing the womb or heaven or danger or innocence – in any number of iconic forms.  The sea, supposedly, typically represents birth or re-birth; flowers can suggest sexuality or love.

Writers rely on the readers’ understanding of these symbols to give depth and richness to their stories and poems.

Poet Laureate of North Carolina, Cathy Smith Bowers, at a writing workshop a few summers ago in Yellow Springs, Ohio, introduced me to the essential role of an abiding image in a poem.  Her soft Southern accent saying “a-BAH-ding  EAH-muj” has stayed with me, and I’ve adopted the term for my own teaching as well.  I ask my students to think of possible abiding images that may carry weight in their stories or poems – those key objects, sounds, or gestures that mean much more in the poem than one may initially realize.

Philip Levine, our current U. S. Poet Laureate, uses images in his poems about working people that stay with you long after you’ve finished the poem, such as in the first stanzas of this beautiful poem, “You Can Have It”:

ashley-bed-moon-7-14-11My brother comes home from work

and climbs the stairs to our room.

I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop

one by one.  You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window

and his unshaven face is whitened

like the face of the moon.  He will sleep

long after noon and waken to find me gone.

The poem is a memory poem about coming of age with his brother in the hard working-class neighborhoods of Detroit in the late 1940s. Life happens in the middle of the poem.  It ends with this poignant plea:

window2.  .  .  Give me back the moon

with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard

and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse

for God and burning eyes that look upon

all creation and say, You can have it.

The moon-lit face – still young and innocent – or rather the speaker’s complex feelings about this face, and the repetition of the final quote, serve to wrap the experience in sorrow and yearning and that quintessential irony of jaded youth.


  1. I always enjoy your poetry. Cryptic at times yet not so much as the beauty flows through it.

  2. Thanks, Rob!

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