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Imagery: Concrete and Purposeful

I wrote this guide for another forum for young writers (mostly teens and twentysomethings), but it got fairly detailed - I think it will be helpful for any writer approaching poetry or poetic prose with a desire to learn something. This guide covers what imagery is, what forms it can take, a plethora of ways that you can use imagery in your poetry, and exercises for improving your imagery. I’m always looking to update and improve my guides, so if you have questions, comments, arguments, additions, whatever please let me know!

The guide is broken up into sections for easier reading. Hit the "next" button at the end of each post for the next section.

What is imagery, and why do we care?

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. An image can be a word, a phrase, or an entire poem. Imagery deals in the concrete, rather than the abstract.

Imagery in all its forms is one of the main vehicles of both emotion and idea in poetry. You have all heard the advice “show, don’t tell” at this point (I hope). That’s imagery. Learning to use it well will take you beyond the simple adage of “show, don’t tell”, but we’ll get more into that later. In poetry, as in most forms of writing, readers don’t respond to opinions without facts, or emotions named with a word. Poetry is not the paraphrase, the “meaning” that you summarize in a sentence for an homework assignment. Poetry is an experience of something – a moment in time, a thought on a subject, the life of an object, a song, a howl, a history. Imagery usually creates experience, and it allows the reader to become a part of that experience. When a poem opens the door with imagery, it gives you something to respond to with your own experience; when a poem tells you what its about without using imagery or figurative language, it shuts you out.

One way that poems can shut a reader out is with abstractions that are not integrated into the poem. Abstractions are nouns that name a general idea, concept or emotion. Love, soul, hate, beauty, happiness, sadness, joy, fury, truth, nature, pain are all abstractions. They are essential words for communicating when we talk to each other, but they tend to make poetry general, vague, and difficult to relate to. Abstractions take a whole host of experiences that are related in feeling but wildly different in every other way and bundle them into a single word or phrase. This makes them strikingly poor communicators when we don’t know the speaker – and so often poor communicators in poetry.

Everyone has a different idea of what these abstract concepts describe in the real world. This is why the concrete often communicates far better than the abstract in poetry – your idea of what love, joy, hate, etc. are way different from my idea, or the idea of a Greek man 2,800 years ago. Say you want to write a poem about being happy. When I think of happiness I’m in my studio, blasting music your parents probably like and becoming one with the rich smell of oil paints. You might imagine that blue day in Santa Cruz, or the first snowfall of the year, or a night in the kitchen talking with friends. I don’t know how you, the reader, will respond to me stating “I was happy” in a poem. Stating the name of the feeling won’t describe how or why that feeling came about, or why it should matter. The reader isn’t going to care about my happiness – she can’t experience it. You can’t make readers feel something by naming the feeling, but you can make them feel by creating the opportunity for them to experience the thing for themselves.

Here’s what Robert Wallace, author of “Writing Poetry”, has to say about it:
Emotions, in themselves, are not subject matter. Being in love, or sad, or lonely, or feeling good because it is spring, are common experiences. Poets 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.

Abstractions have a place in poetry. Poetry can tackle big ideas, general concepts, and the complex realms of human emotion. But both big ideas and the abstractions that name them are better accompanied in poetry by imagery or figurative language of some kind. Some poets that created abstract ideas did so through concrete language, combining particulars so that they merge into the general. Others use particulars to convey things that are usually prosaic and abstract, such as philosophical or scientific concepts. The discussion of imagery vs. abstraction is one with lots of historical and philosophical background that I’m not up on. Poets from different eras struck varying balances between the two in their work – something that you’ll observe as you read poetry from the last five centuries. Reading poetry will help you figure out your own balance between imagery and abstraction, as will thinking about the different types of imagery that you can use in your poetry.

Types of imagery

Keep in mind that there are many types of imagery and that my scheme below might not be yours. Because there are endless ways of making imagery in poetry, there are probably endless ways of classifying images. But I think these classifications make it easier to think about what imagery is and what forms it can take. It also makes it easier to break down those forms and teach them.

1. Sensual imagery: any evocation of the senses–tactile, auditory, visual, aural, and olfactory - in order to be descriptive.

2. Intuitive imagery: images that seem scattered and incongruous, non-linear, and perhaps surreal that travel somewhere between concrete detail and abstractions or fantastical combinations of things, places, concepts, things. Intuitive imagery is usually an application of sensual imagery in a non-straightforward or non literal way.

3. Kinetic imagery: any word or group of words evoking action. Particularly evocative verbs can be a form of kinetic imagery.

4. Conceptual imagery: forms of synecdoche, metonymy, figurative speech, or sensual imagery used to evoke ideas to which one of the five senses or kinesis still clings in ghostly form.

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