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Imagery (part 2)

1. Sensual imagery

When most people talk about imagery they mean sensual imagery, so we’re going to discuss it first. Sensual imagery is language whose main function is to appeal to the senses, thus the name. Sensual imagery often appears as a passage of description, or a moment of a story told in detail. Sensual imagery is always concrete – based in real things. Sensual imagery doesn’t always depict the actual experience of the poet, but it is often based on experience in some way.

Poets use sensual imagery for a number of purposes. In some poems, the images stand on their own without comment. The images evoke a feeling, or maybe they just are. Existing, the way things in the world just exist. The poet doesn’t comment on what the images are doing, but lets them “speak for themselves”.

In a Station of the Metro – Ezra Pound

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

the pool girl – Morgan Downie

she has seen the pool empty
an unspace of blue tile
an echo in cold ceramic
cloudless, a void

she has seen the pool fill
stood above it, immiscible
a colloid, and watched the
sky skid across the surface

she wears a red bathing suit
the white skin of her body
buoyed in the interval
between solid and liquid

all sound is her breath, her
fingers unfurl, become birds
In both of these poems, the poet doesn’t discuss the meaning of the images or name an emotion attached to them; nor do the images tell a conventional story with a conflict and narrative arc. All of that has to be drawn from the images by the reader.

In some poems, the images evoke a moment of experience in order to convey emotion. The poet sometimes names the emotion – at least, they are deliberately drawing attention to the feeling or the atmosphere that they are attempting to create, leading the reader beyond the images presented.
A Blessing – James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

The story told by this poem is short. It’s hardly a story – the poet and his friend stop at twilight and meet ponies at the edge of a field. There’s no conflict, nothing to resolve. Instead, the brief narrative is taken over by imagery in order to evoke emotion: happiness. The imagery in the poem gets less literal as it continues, and this contributes to the way the imagery evokes emotion. First, we experience the evening with the poet: the grass, the willows, the shape of the ponies, the fence. But the main thrust of the poem is the transformation that happens inside the poet during that experience; at that point, the imagery becomes more metaphorical. It goes from describing an evening to describing an emotion, from depicting living things to evoking the feeling of being alive in the lines

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.​

In other poems, sensual images tell a story and describe the speaker’s experience of the world. The images serve the narrative and allow the reader to experience parts of it for themselves. Many contemporary poems use this kind of imagery to both tell the story and to evoke the emotions that accompany the story. The two are twined together, in poetry: the situation creates the emotion. Take a look at the following narrative poem:
At Roane Head - Robin Robertson

You’d know her house by the drawn blinds –
by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall,
the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry.
You’d tell it by the quicken and the pine that hid it
from the sea and from the brief light of the sun,
and by Aonghas the collie, lying at the door
where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap.
A fork of barnacle geese came over, with that slow
squeak of rusty saws. The bitter sea’s complaining pull
and roll; a whicker of pigeons, lifting in the wood.
She’d had four sons, I knew that well enough,
and each one wrong. All born blind, they say,
slack-jawed and simple, web-footed,
rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told,
though blank as air.
Someone saw them once, outside, hirpling
down to the shore, chittering like rats,
and said they were fine swimmers,
but I would have guessed at that.
Her husband left her: said
they couldn’t be his, they were more
fish than human;
he said they were beglamoured,
and searched their skin for the showing marks.
For years she tended each difficult flame:
their tight, flickering bodies.
Each night she closed
the scales of their eyes to smoor the fire.
Until he came again,
that last time,
thick with drink, saying
he’d had enough of this,
all this witchery,
and made them stand
in a row by their beds,
twitching. Their hands
flapped; herring-eyes
rolled in their heads.
He went along the line
relaxing them
one after another
with a small knife.
They say she goes out every night to lay
blankets on the graves to keep them warm.
It would put the heart across you, all that grief.
There was an otter worrying in the leaves, a heron
loping slow over the water when I came
at scraich of day, back to her door.
She’d hung four stones in a necklace, wore
four rings on the hand that led me past the room
with four small candles burning
which she called ‘the room of rain’.
Milky smoke poured up from the grate
like a waterfall in reverse
and she said my name,
and it was the only thing
and the last thing that she said.
She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost;
gave me twists of my four sons’ hair; gave me
her husband’s head in a wooden box.
Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.

The imagery at the beginning of this poem is essential for setting a scene and a mood – it creates a place for the story to happen in, but its more than just illustration. Consider how different the poem would be if you cut out the first ten lines and started with “She’d had four sons, I knew that well enough,” – you’d be unmoored, dropped in the middle of a story, and you’d have a harder time understanding the characters. The setting described in the first ten lines sets up the situation. Like a good story, the emotions of the characters come through with a combination of description and action. At the end of the poem, the only word that names an emotion is “grief”. The rest is developed through actions and observation.


If you’re looking to incorporate sensual imagery, pay attention to the world around you. You don’t always have to write about your own experience or self in poetry – poetry can be dramatic, speculative, apart from the self. But the details of your experience and the observations of the world that you make in daily life provide a lot of fuel for poetry, whether you use it to describe your own life or to show us how a character is feeling. Observe people, how they look and talk. Pay attention to the natural world – the feel of the wind on your skin, the changing faces of the sky, the endlessly varied shapes of plants. Look at cars, look at art, listen to music. All of these things will provide you with sensual imagery.

Sensual imagery can also cross between the senses. Even for the great majority of us who are not synesthetes, one sense connects to others. This works in part through memory. When we hear a song or smell someone’s cologne, we are transported to another place and time – full of sights, sensations, noise. We feel some sounds with the whole body (the bellow of a train, bass of a good stereo). Some sights immediately awaken our other senses – the sight of your favorite food can spark an echo of its taste in your mouth, while looking at someone sexy can make us all but feel the smooth curve of their skin.

Sensual imagery is often beautiful, but it doesn’t have to be. There are some horrifying, disgusting, or just plain ordinary things worth writing poetry about, and sensual imagery can help you convey these just as well is it can beauty and joy.


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