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Imagery (part 6)

Imagery in context

Now that you have an idea of the many ways that imagery can be used in poetry, the next question is: how to use it well? What general principles can be used to figure out if an image will work in a poem and help the poem communicate?

It is important to use imagery to serve a coherent whole, and to try to keep the whole poem in mind when creating your images or when choosing details from life to put onto the page. This can be done in revision as well as in the first draft – if you write to discover what you’re writing about, all is not lost! You just might have some wild beasts on the page to corral in the journey between the rough poem and the finished poem. This can be difficult when you first start incorporating imagery into your poetry or when you’re caught up in the heat of the work. I know that when I write I want to get ideas and impressions down fast. Sometimes this reveals the unexpected – sometimes the results are all over the place. Sometimes in the rush, the main idea gets lost. It can be easy to become enchanted by your creations and forget that they should be part of some larger narrative, idea or purpose rather than a blooming moment of beauty (or wretchedness, if you’re a gritty writer). But in revision, think about what you want to communicate. What feeling do you want to evoke with the poem? What story do you want to tell? Does each image push a reader – perhaps a friend, a critique, or you two weeks later – toward that purpose, or does each image pull in a different direction?

There are a number of ways to create a coherent poem through imagery. One way that poems hang together is through atmosphere. In narrative poems this is often a strong sense of time and place, or of theme – look at the first few lines of “At Roane’s Head”. All the images are of a particular place and are created with words that have related connotations and associations – death, the sea, magic. These turn out to be important threads throughout the poem. Sometimes the buildup of an atmosphere is due to both similarities and differences, or from the leaps between images – such as in “Love in the Orangery”. In that poem, the atmosphere is created by the same almost unbelievable and beautiful nature of the images, even though they are not connected in a narrative or straightforward way.

One way to create images that relate to each other and that help the whole poem hang together is to riff off of one image or theme. If you find that a few of your images, comparisons, moments are related, keep going in that direction. If you’re writing a love poem and a few words start to remind you of the sea, keep pushing in that direction. See what the sea has to offer your imagery. Let one image lead you to the next. Sometimes this results in a jumble that needs to be edited, but sometimes this will get some underlying set of associations or ideas to come through.

Another way is to build a poem as a series of images in the service of a larger metaphor. This is what happens in Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare, which uses a number of somewhat related conceptual images to develop an idea about the constancy of love. Not all poems need to feel the same all the way through, or be “about” the same things, in order to make sense and be a cohesive poem – take a look back at “Mirrors”. This poem is also built as a number of different images in the service of one metaphor and one theme, the strange disconnectedness of mirrors. But it’s the distance between each image and the fact that each section deals with a different strange mirror aspect that helps build that idea. The poem goes in many different directions – red as a crab, a pair of shears, a cloud, a gangster hiding behind tattoos, ancient Greece, a gravestone, the wind. It’s the contrasts between all of these that help convey the strangeness of mirrors.

The kind of contrast used in “Mirrors” can also be used to create transitions. Sometimes a poem needs to travel from one idea to the next or from one state to another: say from innocence to experience. Deliberately choosing contrasting sets of images can help highlight that change in a speaker or a character and make the reader know that something new and different is happening in the poem.


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