Poetry Lesson: Imagery & Discovery, the Foundations of Poetry

Definition of Imagery

Simply put, imagery is writing which creates the impression of the world through the senses. This is the key point here. Sir Philip Sidney, in his “Defence of Poesie” (1595) called a poem a “speaking picture,” although imagery makes use of other senses than vision (touch, taste, smell, sound).

Further, imagery can carry symbolic meaning, and is also the key part of metaphor, extended metaphor and simile used to give concrete impressions of abstract ideas. In creative writing, especially a compressed form like poetry, imagery carries not only impressions of reality, symbol, and metaphor, but also carries emotions and meanings to the mind of the reader.

In addition to the figures of speech mentioned above, imagery is important in other figures such as personification, metonymy, synecdoche, and synesthesia. (Definition adapted from Holman and Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.)

Imagery Is the Foundation of Poetry

Perhaps THE MOST IMPORTANT concept in learning to write poetry is to understand that images make the poem. William Carlos Williams said that there are no ideas outside of “things,” and by things he meant strong, concrete images.

Example (more below): This first stanza (a free-verse sestet) of W.S. Merwin’s “Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise” is replete with imagery (bolded):

When it is not yet day
I am walking on centuries of dead chestnut leaves
In a place without grief
Though the oriole
Out of another life warns me
That I am awake

Also note that in addition to imagery, there is explanation. Yes, there are some statements here, where the poem gives information such as “it is not yet day” and “In a place without grief.” Now is as good a time as any to point out that the beginner’s guideline: “show, don’t tell,” really ought to be written “show a lot, and also tell a little.” The balance of imagery to explanation is delicate. For now, let me just say that statements need to be earned in poetry – which means statements earn their impact through the imagery that preceeds or follows them.

Discussion: Why “thinking in images” can be hard

Composing poetry means “thinking in images.” However, beginning poets often compose out of a mistaken concept that the point of poetry is to make important statements or lay down ideas and themes, and as a result their first poems tend to be emotionally empty, dry, cliché and uninteresting.

Imagery vs. “Themes”, Discovery vs. “Planning” & The Problem with “Planning”

Having taught many introduction to creative writing and poetry writing courses for thirteen years (as of this writing), I’ve observed that when my beginning poetry students reflect about the process of composing their draft poems, they often write of “choosing a topic,” “finding a theme,” and “outlining points.”

In other words, new writers default to the thematic essays and five-paragraph themes drilled into them throughout primary and secondary school. On top of that is grafted the oversimplified notion of “the writing process” they have been taught, that consists of “planning,” “drafting,” “peer reviewing” and “revising.” These two notions, of “planning” a poem, and that poetry consists of statements of ideas leading to conclusions, impedes their progress. Although the concept of poetry as “experiential writing” with imagery as the vehicle to produce experiences, emotions, empathy, and ideas in the minds of reader is not difficult to learn, in practice, unlearning these biases toward planning and writing essays is tough.

If you’re teaching poetry, or are a new poet yourself, and find yourself with similar ideas of what poetry is, remember that the use of imagery is key and begin to untie yourself from the notion that poems make statements about ideas or themes and are “planned” like reports and essays. It’s about images creating experiences (and melody, but that’s a subject for another time.)

I had a similar struggle. Although I already had a knack for imagery, it wasn’t until I took a workshop with Stephen Dobyns at the former Ropewalk Writers Retreat, probably 10 years after I had already begun publishing poems, that I finally “got it.” In our one-on-one session he told me that I wrote poems as if I already knew what I wanted to say. He explained that as a result the poems didn’t seem to be “discovered.” They read as if there was little surprise, for the reader and for me.

A few year later Derek Walcott, in one of his last public appearances, told the audience, somewhat mystically, that a poem begins with silence, and the quality of the poem produced depends upon the quality of the silence. I was blown away with his way of expressing what Dobyns was getting at. Ever since hearing their advice, I have striven to “let the poem come to me,” rather than to impose my will upon a poem.

More Examples of Imagery

Look at the following examples and see how they communicate through imagery of the world, of surroundings, of a scene, employing multiple senses. 

Here is an entire poem by the late Jane Kenyon. Just look how important the imagery is to this poem!

Alone for a Week, By Jane Kenyon

I washed a load of clothes
and hung them out to dry.
Then I went up to town
and busied myself all day.
The sleeve of your best shirt
rose ceremonious
when I drove in; our night-
clothes twined and untwined in
a little gust of wind.
For me it was getting late;
for you, where you were, not.
The harvest moon was full
but sparse clouds made its light
not quite reliable.
The bed on your side seemed
as wide and flat as Kansas;
your pillow plump, cool,
and allegorical. . . .

For a final example, a favorite of mine by Native American poet Joy Harjo, “Perhaps the World Ends Here.” Look how important imagery is to this poem, built around a table:

Perhaps the World Ends Here, by Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Final Thoughts: Cliché Images (yes), and “Wit”

As I close out this lesson on the image, I want to acknowledge that once a writer “gets” the notion of writing in images, learning to write poetry may present yet more challenges: learning to abandon clichés and write creative, original images is one. So perhaps some writers are doubtful of their abilities and fearful in the face of the blank screen’s blinking cursor, or the empty page, and grab ahold of what’s familiar: the sad naked trees of winter, the green grass, blue skies and happy sunny days of summer, the changing of the seasons with brown leaves falling down. All generic, pre-digested images and their associated feelings and symbols. At that point one must be willing to relentlessly delete cliché and patiently craft one’s own words, find one’s own symbols and ideas. So, switching from statement to image can present another opportunity to learn to abandon the generic and familiar in favor of the specific and individual.

Finally, I’m often asked if it is necessary to use imagery in poetry. The correct answer is, I believe, “Yes, but…” An exception is wit, by which I mean wordplay, punning and exceptional eloquence, intelligence, and power of statements. Wit can take the place of imagery, and helps explain the power of what I call the “telling it like it is” poem. (I credit my Spalding MFA mentor Debra Kang Dean for the insight about Wit.)

I hope you have enjoyed this lesson/essay on imagery in poetry, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, michael-jackman.com. You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman, writer and senior lecturer in Writing at Indiana University Southeast.

Although the lessons are free of charge, you can help support maintaining lessons on this site through the paypal link on the top right of this page.

Fiction: Plot Study Guide

The Freytag Pyramid

Fiction: Plot

Overview

Though some types of stories are based on unrelated episodes (Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote), known as the “episodic story” or the “picaresque”, and some have a purpose to reveal what life is like for the protagonist without the use of a rising action/rising emotion sense of plot (Flaubert: “A Simple Heart”), known as the “slice of life” story (from the French, tranche de vie), most are traditionally plotted.

Terms

Plot: the events, or significant actions, that take place in a story, which are motivated by:

  • conflict, meaning a problem big enough to cause an attempt to solve it (interior-psychological, exterior-in the world, or both). Conflict creates tension and compels the protagonist to act to attempt to resolve the conflict or solve the problem. 
  • desire or need, meaning that there is something the protagonist wants enough to attain it, to cause action. The protagonist has the motivation to act in the face of obstacles to attempt to achieve the desired end. 
  • obstacles, meaning that the protagonist’s desire is not easy to obtain, or the problem is not easy to resolve; in fact, it may never be obtained or resolved, but as the story moves toward the resolution, the character is determined to overcome the obstacles (again, these can interior, exterior, or both) in the way of achieving the desired end to the conflict or problem. 
  • story time. If you think about it, time doesn’t flow in a narrative the way it flows normally. After all, if it did, a story that covers a day in a character’s life would literally take 24 hours to read as each second is described! Story time refers to the way time flows in narrative. Typically: slower in description and faster in summary. 

    While many plots progress chronologically (“Araby” by James Joyce, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury, “How I Met My Husband” by Alice Munro), that is, the story starts at one point in time and scenes move forward to create a resolution at a later point in time, this is not necessary. 

    A plot that begins with a scene in the present, jumps back in time to relate the events of the story until it ends back at the same scene in the present is called a frame narrative. Suspense comes in part from wondering how the story will return to the “frame.” Examples of novels which use frame narratives include Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

    A story in which the scenes jump around in time to fill in bits and pieces has no special name I’m aware of, but might be called a non-sequential narrative. There are many creative ways to tell a story that cause the reader to have different psychological responses, such as suspense. But there’s nothing wrong with a good old chronological or sequential narrative. 

  • A different approach to plot is called a slice of life narrative. Rather than creating a classic story of escalating emotional stakes, tension, and moving to resolution, the goal is to offer an objective, nonjudgmental presentation of the mundane incidents in life. “An objective of the naturalists. Slice of life is the English translation of the French tranche de vie, applied to the work of [Emile] Zola and the French naturalists,” says Harmon & Holman’s A Handbook to Literature, 7th Ed. (486). 

Point of Attack: Means the point in time and action chosen to begin the story. In fiction, especially short stories, this is a point most often “in medias res” which is Latin for “in the middle of things.” It avoids the problem of extensive “explaining” of background, known as “exposition.” The trick is to pick a point of attack that will solve the problem of presenting exposition dramatically, in the context of action. The origin of the term is from Horace. Exposition is supplied later “through flashbacks and other devices for exposition” (Harmon & Holman’s A Handbook to Literature, 12th Ed. (253).

Timeline: A timeline is one way to visualize plot. One way to think of dramatic structure is that at some point in the story an event occurs which diverges the character from his or her expected path in life. The character must choose a new direction – that either changes the course of life forever, or eventually, through effort, merges the course of events back to the path he or she expected in the first place (with some differences?).

Dramatic Structure: The Freytag Pyramid (see below – my version is more like a hump) is another way to visualize dramatic structure. The intensity curve is of both action and emotion. It begins with exposition and the point of attack. The rising action adds conflict, leads to a crisis(also called climax). After the crisis comes the falling action, a briefer period moving toward conclusion, called denouement (French noue = knot. Denouement = the “unknotting” of the plot). The resolution concludes the story.

It’s useful to think of resolutions as either complication resolved or situation revealed. Complication resolved completely “unties” the knot of the plot. Situation revealed resolutions stop the story when the reader has enough information about the protagonist to know that an interior change has been made, and doesn’t move on to finish resolving all the complications. “Misery,” and “First Husband, First Wife,” are examples of situation revealed resolutions. “How I Met My Husband” is an example of complication resolved – though it really contains both. The terms “complication resolved” and “situation revealed” come from Wallace Stegner and Henry James.

Beginner Mistake in Writing Short Stories

A character attempts to solve a string of serial murders. A character has to flee an apocalyptic disaster (bomb, plague, comet strike, war, zombies, or some combination) and find a mythical sanctuary, which he or she will find, and then must adjust to the new world, fight off an attack by evil forces bent on destroying the sanctuary, and finally take his or her place as leader of the new world order. Problem: Ten pages. All action, no development of character, too big for the form. Think small. Short Stories are Short. They take place over a period of hours, days, perhaps weeks, and develop in a limited number of scenes and settings.

Ways to Conceive of Plot

The “Freytag Pyramid” named after the guy who proposed it, is a good way to think of how drama works in terms of plot construction. Note it moves from unrest to maximum unrest, and then, in a shorter span of times, moves to some kind of rest, either “complication resolved” (all worked out) or “situation revealed” (we get all we need to know to appreciate the complication, but the story stops short of resolving it for us. These two ending possibilities are also known as “resolution or revelation.” There are many other ways stories work than the Freytag – however, this concept IS classic, and gives a general outline on how to create a narrative that “goes somewhere”. 

The Freytag Pyramid
The Freytag Pyramid is useful for conceiving the dramatic progress of a story.

The timeline chart (below) conceives of story as requiring something unexpected to happen that sets the protagonist on a new course. The suspense created as the story progresses has to do with how the protagonist will react. Will life get back to the intended path? Will the protagonist never be able to go back and the new path becomes the reality? Will the new path be accepted or not? 

Plot Timeline

As you think of the stories we’ve read, consider the Freytag Pyramid and the Unexpected Path explanation of what drives the plot and whether they help explain how stories are constructed to be effective. 

plot timeline.jpg
© Michael Jackman All Rights Reserved

A Generative Poetry Exercise from Kenneth Koch

Overview

Generative Exercises allow creative writers to think outside our normal default modes of creation. Often, the poems created during exercises are stronger than ones created with no prompt.

Koch’s book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children may be designed for teaching poetry in elementary school, but I find the exercises work for all levels, including seasoned poets. Another useful book by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell is Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing

The following exercise is taken from Chapter 7 of Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?

Directions

Part 1 – Preparing/Creating/Reflecting

1. Study the following famous poem, “Between Walls,” by William Carlos Williams. Read it aloud to get the feel for its music and use of line. Then, read what Kenneth Koch (and I) write about some of “Between Walls'” elements:

Between Walls, by William Carlos Williams

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle

In Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children, Kenneth Koch draws our attention to [Some of these observations are mine, not Koch’s.]:

  • “the un-beautifulness of the broken glass bottle and how Williams thinks it is beautiful anyway”
  • that this poem is not about “highly poetical things” that people often think are the “only proper ones to write poetry about,” but common things
  • note there is no punctuation, the poem not really a sentence (poetry allows you to not be perfectly grammatical
  • the language is plain, simple
  • the lines are very short (2-4 syllables each and 1-2 strong accents)
  • the image gradually unfolds image with no stops and constant enjambment (lines that do not pause at a punctuation or natural pause) where the lines pull the reader down deeper into the poem.
  • Most importantly, “Between Walls” creates meaning by never telling it. It is all image. (Well there is one important elaboration of an image as exposition or commentary – the explanation “where / nothing / will grow”.)

2. Write: Write a poem after this model that discovers what is beautiful to you in something you see, in an unexpected way – be sure you are writing about really plain, ordinary things and using simple, unadorned language.

  • Write at least 12 lines.
  • Do not rhyme.
  • Pay attention to line endings – what words you end each line on, and create enjambments.
  • Make sure your poem is an unfolding image – don’t tell us what you mean, keep commentary (exposition) to an absolute minimum. Think of how you might employ multiple sensations.
  • Try to imitate this style of one quasi-sentence for the entire poem, building up to a surprise at the end – this poem uses the sentence vs. the line to create suspense and creates the surprising turn “in which shine / the broken / pieces of a green / bottle”.

3. Reflect: Often, it’s reflecting on your work that creates the most intense learning. I suggest you don’t skip this step.

  • Write a paragraph reflecting upon the experience of writing this poem. Consider:
    • What were you trying to do with the word choices and structure of your poem?
    • What beliefs about poetry did “Between Walls” and your own poem change, confirm, or challenge?
    • Anything else you want to reflect upon that the first three did not cover or challenge.
  • Look at the surprising fact about this poem at the end of this lesson.

Part 2 – Respond to Other Poets

If you are working with other writers, you can get together as a group to get workshop feedback. If you are a teacher, you can put students into workshop groups. Here are two ways to entice useful comments. They are based on the techniques presented by Peter Elbow.

Sharing:

  • First, we will call this part “sharing.” say something about the poem and what it might have revealed for you. Respond to the poet’s reflection, if that is shared. And may I say that we always want to appreciate that a someone created a poem out of nothing. You have something to start with for possible future revision!

Responding As a Reader

  • Second, we will call this part “responding.” For this type of critiquing we are mainly “responding as a reader.”  (Sometimes we are responding as a fellow writer, such as when looking at the “turn” of a poem.) A writer needs to know how audiences react to the creative work in order to have ideas for revision. Your response should include, “What works for me as a reader,” “What doesn’t work for me as a reader.” Here are some ideas to guide responses (use what is most important to the poem).
  • Where does the poem keep the most interest? Where the poem seem to keep the least interest for you? Why?
  • What does the poem make you feel and think?
  • What words seem most important to you, feel right to you? What words seem not to be as effective, and why?
  • What images are most effective to you, least effective? Is there enough imagery in the poem?
  • Where do you sense a turn? Can you find a turn? (The idea of the “turn” or “volta” in a free verse lyric poem is that the poem “goes somewhere” emotionally). Is the turn creating emotional interest? Does the turn help the poem stay with you after it is over? What thoughts does it provoke?
  • What do you feel the poem is trying to say?
  • What places confuse you, or you think are unintentionally cloudy or too difficult?
  • Thinking of future revision: Is the poem the right length, too short, too long to do the work it seems to want to do?

Surprising Fact about “Between Walls” by William Carlos Williams

“Between Walls” is an example of “imagism” – a movement in poetry that began in 1913 and lasted for about a decade. Its goal was to experiment with poetry made up of only “concrete images drawn in precise, colloquial [everyday] language” (Poetry Foundation). It tried not to explain, but only to show “an instant of time” as poet Ezra Pound put it, and to always use “the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word” as poet Amy Lowell put it. Doing so would create both emotional and intellectual complexity, it was thought. Lowell also wrote of imagism that it should “render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of art,” that it should “produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite,” and that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”

This movement’s philosophy reveals what Williams was up to in this poem and why it may seem so different than other types of poetry. Personal Reflection: How do the ideas of imagism challenge your ideas of what a poem should be and how might it affect your future writing of poetry?

awash in music – so inspiring

An exciting development lately has been how much playing music has been in my life lately.

I just helped two music production students last week by backing them up on acoustic lead guitar/vocals/dobro slide guitar, with music faculty Tim Haertel on stand-up bass. We played for IU Southeast’s Founder’s Day Luncheon. It was a fun gig, as the young students wanted to play classics like Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” John Denver’s “Country Roads (Take Me Home),” Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly,” and Jackson Browne/Eagle’s “Take it Easy.” I also got to do a vocal solo on the Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” Those songs are almost all ones I used to play in bars, and were fun to resurrect for a new generation of pickers.

Also been rehearsing with roots/Americana/Bluegrass pickers – sometimes with Music and English faculty (Bourbon Sidecars) sometimes with dulcimer/guitar/vocalist Molly McCormick and stand-up bass player David Rodgers (Molly’s Mutts), and now and then at the jam on Sundays at Lettersong Gallery.

Here is my new publicity photo. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Dugan’s iPhone black and white editing magic. Michael Jackman and Monty mutt pose by the homestead chicken coop. 

I’m sure this dive into music is inspiring my poetry and other writing!

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