When I took a poetry writing course in college, one of the things my professor beat into our heads—and pens—nearly every day was the use of imagery. If I didn’t learn anything else about poetry, I learned that imagery is important. Imagery is important. Imagery is important. Imagery is important.
In poetry, imagery is used to transform the telling of an event into an experience that readers can relate to. Instead of reading about eating a watermelon, Charles Simic puts us in a summer day when he writes:
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.
When poems have vivid sensory imagery, readers are much better able to draw on their own experiences as they read because they aren’t faced with the vague notion of “summer,” but remember eating watermelons at family picnics, perhaps standing in a row with siblings and cousins, leaning as far back as possible to catapult watermelon seeds across the lawn where a young cousin is waiting to measure distances. See how much better imagery is?
One of the great things about imagery is its ability to create such a variety of experiences and draw on such a variety of memories for the reader. However someone remembers an event or experience, the poet can draw on that by touching all the senses in imagery. Take the following as an example, which will be written in prose for convenience. Start with the sentence: “It was the first morning of her honeymoon cruise.”
Now let’s add imagery, beginning with visual.
The enormous orange globe was just peeking over the vast glassy ocean, the water barely parting as the stark white ship sluiced through it, churning up creamy, bubbling foam in its wake, the only sign of its passing the barely visible waves radiating out from the back of the ship like arms opening to the world waiting for the ship’s return. The curtains were pulled mostly closed, and there was a glow coming from behind them, though the room was still dim.
Let’s add auditory.
Unlike other mornings, this one was not punctuated by commuters on the highway just outside, children calling to each other on their way to the bus stop, birds cackling to the squirrels from the safety of the trees. Instead, this morning was accompanied by the soothing soundtrack of a rhythmic Whoosh! of that green-blue water kissing the sides of the ship, the occasional floating laughter from the balcony above, footsteps in the hall outside on the way to breakfast or the pool or the spa. Occasionally, her husband’s breath caught in his throat, causing him to snore lightly.
How about olfactory (smell).
Though the balcony door was closed, there was the faint smell of saltiness in the air that mixed with the light, clean scent of the stateroom, and called to mind hotel rooms on the beach. She could smell her husband’s cologne, left over from their romantic dinner the night before.
Let’s add tactile (touch).
There was warmth where her husband’s form was curled next to her, the weight of his arm flung across her stomach. The pillow was sunken in on one side from sleeping, and now her head tried to roll a little to that side, closer to her husband. If she closed her eyes and stayed very still, she could feel herself shifting slightly back and forth as the ship moved through the water.
One more: gustatory (taste). Sometimes this one’s a little hard.
Her mouth had the familiar morning dryness to it—something that didn’t change with the addition of her wedding ring—but she could detect a hint of salty moisture in the air when she opened her mouth to yawn. She was looking forward to ordering breakfast—there was nothing like fresh, ice cold strawberries and thick, sweet cream spooned generously over them.
There. Isn’t that better?
Imagery is important in poetry. And the more specific and concrete the images are, the stronger they are. Don’t just say “a pen.” Tell me if it’s ball point, roller ball or fountain. What color ink is in it? Is it a click-y pen or does it have a cap? Does it have a logo? If so, what? The more you tell about an image the more vividly your reader sees it, and the stronger the writing is.
A good writing exercise I do for imagery (in poetry as well as prose) is to take one small image: an ink pen, for example, and write about it using all five senses with a minimum word count (or line count for poetry). Granted, this gets a bit interesting when it comes to gustatory imagery, but it’s a fun exercise, and it forces you to look at the tiny details of an object when you write about it, particularly if your minimum word/line count is a bit high.
An alternative to the word/line minimum is to write for four minutes and fill an 8½” x 10” sheet of paper with as much specific, concrete detail as possible. This is fun, too, because of the time restriction.
Remember: imagery draws in a reader, and gives the reader specific things to focus on and use to draw on his or her own experiences to your poem, your experience.
Happy imagery scribbling!