Imagery: The Foundation of Poetry

This poetry lesson covers the key foundation of poetry: imagery.

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 and (yes) “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 enjoy this lesson, 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.

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