On Poetry: A Lesson on Imagery
So poetry is a subject near and dear to me. I studied under Diane Wakoski at university and learned so much from my time there. Today I wanted to talk a little about what I view as the heart of poetry, imagery. I know there are forms like narrative poetry and slam poetry, which are different in their makeup, but they still contain imagery. Imagery is crucial to your poem. It also includes more senses than just sight. So let’s look at how to form your imagery, since it’s not all created equal.
The first type of imagery I want to discuss are adjective-noun combinations. These are easy to fall back on and rely upon, but using the wrong types of combinations can be detrimental to your poem. This is for a couple of reasons. One, they often form vague, general, or weak descriptions. “Pretty girl” doesn’t really tell us anything about what she looks like. Neither does “blue sky”. There are all kinds of blue seen in the sky at any point in the day. From the light grey blue of winter mornings to the deep twilight skies at night. Blue skies is weak and vague. The other problem comes in the forms of cliché. “Blue sky” isn’t a very original image or thought. Neither is white or fluffy clouds or a red rose. That being said, there can be fine adjective-noun combinations as we’ll look at later.
The real strength of imagery comes from metaphors and similes. I’m sure you have heard these terms before but I’ll give a quick definition of them here. A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things. For example, “that child is a bear.” A simile is a comparison of two unlike things using like or as. For example, “pretty as a picture.” Metaphors are powerful. And similes should be surprising. A lot of clichés are overused similes. Pretty as a picture or red as a rose, for instance. I’m sure you can think of several cliché similes you’ve heard. So you want to make sure you pick a strong and original one.
Trope is another great strengthener of both imagery and your poem. Trope is an overarching metaphor that the rest of your imagery falls under, like an umbrella. So like the famous poem about fog creeping like a cat, all the imagery is related and falls under that trope. It all builds the trope that fog is a cat. So if your trope is water, all your imagery will be water descriptions. This can be the color of the ocean, the salty tang of sea spray, the chill of moonlit waters, the smell of brine, or the sound of rushing waves. But they’re all unified. This keeps your poem from feeling random, jumbled, or discordant from being a mixed bag of images.
Finally, be concrete with your imagery. Be specific and precise when choosing your words and crafting your descriptions. Just as in writing fiction, strong verbs and concrete nouns will make your writing more impactful.
Now, let’s look at a famous poem and a favorite of mine:
If You Forget Me
I want you to know
You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.
If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.
if each day,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.
Now to look closely at it. You’ll see that he uses several adjective-noun combinations, but that isn’t always a bad thing. The phrase “impalpable ash,” is specific and strong. “Wrinkled body of the log” is another great image. I also love the imagery of roots at the shore of his heart and then of them setting off to a new place. My favorite image would have to be the flower climbing up her lips to seek him. Read other poets and be inspired by them. Think about how you are forming your imagery. Is it clear? Is it cliché? Hope this discussion helps you to think about imagery in your own poetry. What’s your favorite poem? How does it tackle imagery?
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Julia received her BA in Creative Writing and English from Michigan State University. She did her senior thesis in poetry under the tutelage of Diane Wakoski, but has been focused primarily on fiction as of late. Common writing themes that can be found in her work address identity, everyday magic, and the type of strength that can be found in ordinary people. Three of her short stories are featured in anthologies. Julia is currently working on a Young Adult fantasy series and can be found at local cafes in her hometown when writing, and painting, drawing, or reading when not.