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Mon Aug 27, 2007 12:57 am
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something euclidean says...

In a lot of my critiques, here and elsewhere, I find myself going over the basics of imagery, trying to explain it and type it quickly so that the critique-ee can understand and put the ideas to use. Hopefully, this will become a more complete and useful guide for those looking to learn about imagery. I also want this to be of use for poets with a command of the basics and want to tighten the nuts and bolts.

Imagery: Concrete and Purposeful

Imagery, at its best, isn’t just the background of a poem or a pretty veneer that draws attention from the ‘point’ the poet is trying to made – it can become the fabric of the poem, conveying the essential emotions and ideas. Imagery has the power to evoke and to illustrate, bringing out the response of the readers rather than pounding the expected response into their skulls.

Imagery is language that addresses the senses. It is a very flexible device and doesn’t have a structural formula, like the simile does; rather, anything that conveys sensory detail and shows, rather than tells, can be an image. Imagery deals in the concrete, rather than the abstract.


Poetry doesn’t have to attack grand truths of the universe or be general and vague; these are often the mistakes of beginners, who really want to be Poetic with a capital P. This often leads down the road to abstraction. Abstraction is anything vague and hard to quantify – love, soul, hate, beauty, happiness, sadness, truth, nature, pain. These things are all very different for different people and so lose all meaning in a poem. You might want to say “I was happy,” but your vision of happy and my vision of happy are probably totally different things. When I think of happiness I imagine a rainy day, myself curled up on the couch with my best friend under blankets, reading or talking, and with a cup of tea.

You might imagine that one day in Santa Cruz, or the first snowfall of the year, or a bottle of wine and your lover. I don’t know – and since the response to something so vague is going to be completely varied, it will hold no meaning within the poem. It won’t show how or why “I was happy” or why that should matter. The reader isn’t going to care about my happiness – she can’t experience it.

Robert Wallace, author of “Writing Poetry”, on imagery, emotion, and subject matter:
Emotions, in themselves, are not subject matter. Being in love, or sad, or lonely, or feeling good because it is spring, are common experiences. Poems that merely say these things, state these emotions directly, are unlikely to be very interesting. We may respect such statements, but we can’t be moved by them.

The circumstances of the emotion, the scene or events out of which it comes, however, are the subject matter. Don’t tell the emotion. Tell the causes of it, the circumstances. Presented vividly, they will not only convince us of its truth but will also make us dramatically feel it.

Evoking this feeling in the reader is of utmost importance. If emotion is important to the meaning of the poem – and it always is – then there is no point in trying to beat it into a reader. He goes on to restate one of the most oft-quoted ‘rules’ of writing; show, don’t tell.
The key is presenting; not to tell about, but to show. Put the spring day or the girl or the father into the poem. Put the mountain into the poem so that, in the absence of the mountain, the poem can take the place of the mountain.

Addonizio and Laux, in The Poet's Companion, say, "Images are the rendering of your bodily experiences in the world; without them, your poems are going to risk being vague and imprecise, and they will fail to convey much to the reader." Also, remember that "images may be literal: the red kitchen chair in a dim corner of the room; the gritty wet sand under her bare feet. Or they may be figurative, departing from the actual and stating or implying a comparison: the chair, red and shiny as fingernail polish; the armies of sand grains advancing across the wood floor of the beach house." And also keep in mind that images can appeal to all the senses, not just sight--don't forget about smell, taste, hearing, and touch. These can be just as powerful--or perhaps more powerful--than visual references. Smell can be especially potent –- memories and smells are often closely linked in our minds.

While details will bring poetry to life, they can’t just be there for ornamentation; they have to link to something, help create meaning, or help convey an emotion for a purpose. What these details add up to can be explained in the poem, as in “The Black Snake” by Mary Oliver or they can just imply the idea, and let the reader draw the conclusion, like with William Carlos Williams’ “Poem”.

Creating effective images

Strong imagery will give the sense of “I’ve never thought about it that way, but she’s right.” (This is generally the aim as poetry as a whole, but that’s a much stickier discussion for another day). It’s not enough to get some sort of visual onto the page, though that’s a step in the right direction; you want the images you use to be as descriptive as possible, to “pull their weight”. They should help push the reader’s thoughts toward the meaning/theme as much as describe or show.

As you keep your own experiences and meaning in mind and write imagery to fit that, your poetry should gain the added bonus of becoming fresher, more original. How many poems have you read where “tears streamed”? (Please, if you’ve counted, don’t tell me.) If you consider the significance of the tears, you can describe them in a way that’s original and personal, and that suggests more about what’s to come in the poem ( I read something wonderful recently with crocodiles moving hungrily down a face: a nice play on “crocodile tears”, but also violent and bizarre, which lent to the atmosphere of the poem in question)

So don’t write
The rivers of crimson
run down my arm,

like the millions of teenagers before you have. Think, instead, of how the concept actually affects you and fits into the theme of the rest of your poem.
These ribbons of vitality
untie themselves and
float to the floor, discarded.

The images of Federico Garcia Lorca are both simple and surreal - the picture the words create seems clear, but it is strange, and meaning comes from the unexpected. (Personally, I like his imagery because it’s beautiful and because it is never something I would think of.)
The dead put on wings of moss.
The cloudy wind and the clear wind
are two pheasants that fly through towers
and the day is a wounded young boy.

But do not light your pure nakedness
like a black cactus open in the rushes.

A successful image can be created with strong verbs and nouns. It doesn’t have to be flowery, and in most cases it shouldn’t be. An overload of adjectives equals poetic drowning rather than detailed imagery. For a good exercise in getting rid of excess adjectives, take a look at this article, by Fand. That method is just as useful in poetry as it is in prose. Extra adjectives can get in the way of the central ideas of a line or a sentence, creating a slush that the reader gets lost in. A few well-placed adjectives and, maybe (Maybe, if you use them really well) adverbs can complement strong verbs and nouns instead of drowning them out.

Take a look at this poem:
by Denis Johnson

The terminal flopped out
around us like a dirty hankie,
surrounded by the future population
of death row in their disguises--high
school truant, bewildered Korean refugee--
we complained that bus 18 will never arrive,
when it arrives complain what an injury
is this bus again today, venerable
and destined to stall. When it stalls

at 16th and McDowell most of us get out
to eat ourselves alive in a 24-hour diner
that promises not to carry us beyond
this angry dream of grease and the cries
of spoons, that swears our homes
are invisible and we never lived in them,
that a bus hasn't passed here in years.
Sometime the closest I get to loving

the others is hating all of us
for drinking coffee in this stationary sadness
where nobody's dull venereal joking breaks
into words that say it for the last time,
as if we held in the heavens of our arms
not cherishable things, but only the strength
it takes to leave home and then go back again.

the word choice is very particular, and even single words suggest strong images: the terminal “flopped”, limp and apathetic and dull; “what an injury” is the bus, a personal insult, a wound on the face of the day. The terminal is not dull, the bus is not frustrating. With careful word choice, a poem can suggest much more than the basic ideas that it’s trying to convey. Dull is dull. Flopped has much more to say.

Some questions to ask of images, once they are composed:
    How does this contribute to the overall feeling and meaning of the poem?
    (If you start writing without a clear idea in mind - writing to figure things out - now is a good time to think long and hard about what stays and what goes.)

    Are there any contradictions? Do the images switch gears too fast, or – if the tack or tone changes – does it do so gradually, in a way that makes sense?

    Are any images abstractions in disguise? (This can be difficult to spot, because these phrases tend to sound really cool and you won’t want to cut them. “Shards of opaque clarity” is an example: I don’t know what opaque clarity looks like, or how it can be in shards, so this image is doing nothing but sounding poetic.)

    Can I condense the wording, so every word makes a maximum impact and I’m not taking up extra space?

The strongest people are not those who show their true strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.
— Unknown