Imagery~ Part 1

Six Critical Questions About Poetry-

Imagery~ pt 1


Part 1

Are the images effective?

In a difficult poem, isolated images may be all that reaches the reader the first time through. These may be vivid visual details used for their own sake, or they may be vehicles for metaphors; but the poet needs to know what has really made an impression on his/her readers. It is mainly by listening to the reactions of others that he will eventually be able to judge for himself what is a fresh image and what is bland, flat, or even hackneyed. For example, read this very short poem by Ezra Pound; his use of imagery takes the place of a million words.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound said he wrote this poem to convey an experience; one which our own Neil Chatterton has described as he rides the subway to work or just observes his surroundings with interest and imagination; Pound was emerging from a train in the Paris subway (Metro), when he beheld “suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another.” How effective would this poem be if he had described his impression in thirty lines as he had first done? In this final version, each line contains an image, which, like a picture, is more vivid and memorable.

Though the term image suggests a thing seen, when speaking of images in poetry we generally mean a word or sequence of words that refers to any sensory experience. Often this experience is a sight (visual imagery as in Pound’s poem) but it may be a sound (auditory imagery) or a touch (tactile imagery, as a perception of roughness or smoothness). It may be an odor or a taste or a bodily sensation such as pain, the prickling of gooseflesh, the quenching of thirst, or—–as in the following brief poem—-the perception of something cold.

The Piercing Chill I Feel

The piercing chill I feel;
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel…

Taniguchi Buson (1715 – 1783)

As in this haiku an image can convey a flash of understanding. Fresh imagery is what experienced poets use to avoid the obvious and overused words such as love, hate, grief, fear, joy and other emotions which do not create the same emotional response in the reader as an image. Had he wished, the poet might have spoken of the dead woman, of the contrast between her death and the warm memory of her, of his feelings toward death in general. Such a discussion would be prose; quite different from the poem he actually wrote. Think about how you feel and identify with the emotions of both poets; does the imagery make the poetry more effective for you?

Striking his bare foot against the comb, now cold and motionless but associated with the living wife (perhaps worn in her hair), the widower feels a shock as if he had touched the dead woman’s corpse. A literal, physical sense of death is conveyed; the abstraction “death” is understood through the senses. To render the abstract in concrete terms is what separates prose from poetry; prose is “heard” whereas poetry is “overheard” and, in the words of J.S.Mill, the poem becomes a “painting of the soul.” Thus, imagery is the first question to ask when writing or reading a poem; is it there and is it effective? It may be a good exercise to choose a poem of your own or someone else’s or a favorite poet and look at the imagery or develop some fresh ways to describe abstractions such as death, heartache, grief, falling in love, physical attraction just for starters; and “my love is like a red, red rose doesn’t count.”

Article by Willow Rose


7 thoughts on “Six Critical Questions About Poetry- Part 1 Imagery~

  1. I’ve always loved imagery in words.  I compare it to looking at a painting.  As you read, you see the elements, and they come together to form a complete image in your mind.  And I love haiku or other short poems best.  A writer who can convey strong imagery in few words is master of his craft.

    Good post.

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