imagery in poetryIntroduction

Imagery is the content of thought where attention is directed to sensory qualities — i.e. mental images, figures of speech and embodiments of non-discursive truth. Given that language is so largely constructed of dead metaphors, some residue of original use remains behind even the most commonplace words. Yet readers very much differ in their ability to visualize such metaphors, and not all metaphors are primarily visual. How do poets bring such qualities to life? And how far should they go, since many of Shakespeare's lines become ludicrous if their mixed metaphors are realized too completely?


A first point to make is that both the use and concept of imagery in poetry has followed shifting cultural outlooks. The medieval view of art was rooted in morality, and its descriptions of the world never forgot that the things depicted served God's purpose: the smallest thing reached into a larger world beyond. Renaissance writers studied the classical authors more widely and employed figures — rhetorical figures, including simile, allegory and metaphor — whose purpose was to clarify, enforce and decorate a preexisting meaning. Imagery was often elaborate, but not generally constitutive of meaning. The growth of a homogeneous reading public in the 18th century, with more settled opinions, brought a polite and plain diction into general use. Images became mental representations of sensory experience, a storehouse of devices by which the original scenes of nature, society, commerce, etc. could be recreated. With Romantic transcendentalism, when the world reappeared as the garment of God, and the abstract and general resided in the concrete and particular, poetry came to embody the sacred, and images to be symbols of an indwelling (though not necessarily Christian) deity. In Modernism and Postmodernism, the interest has focused on the images themselves, which are an inescapable part of language, and therefore of a poet's meaning.

These are very broad generalities. There are traces of Medieval allegory in most Renaissance writers. Shakespeare's later works may belong to the hermetic tradition. The best eighteenth century writers do not simply open the props cupboard but employ conventional imagery to construct a penetrating commentary on life. Byron may be a Romantic poet but he is not a spiritualist like Blake. And so on. By the eclectic late twentieth century, matters have become complicated indeed.

Imagery in poetry can be very various. Psychologists identify seven kinds of mental images — those of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, bodily awareness and muscular tension. All are available to poets, and all are used by poets, though not to the same extent. Browning uses tactile imagery while Shelley's imagery emphasizes movement, for instance. Nor is imagery per se important — its extent or type — but the purposes it serves. Metaphor, simile, allegory, personification, metonymy (attribute for all) and synecdoche (part for whole) each compare one thing with another, but involve the two in different ways. Often the things compared are both images, though one may also be a feeling or concept. The effect differs, therefore, and word choice is further dictated by literary fashion and a poet's obsessions. Donne's metaphysical images show a startling reach from subject to analogue, but such conceits were prized at the time, and Donne was a tortured and exceptionally learned writer. Literary works can indeed be attributed to authors in disputed cases by computer analysis (cluster analysis) of imagery, and occasionally something made of the poet's state of mind. Imagery can be used to externalize thought, to create mood and atmosphere, and to give continuity by recurring leitmotifs. Light and dark are prevalent in Romeo and Juliet, for example, and the aimlessness of modern life evoked by fragmented images in The Waste Land. In longer poems, moreover, the recurring imagery need not simply reappear but can operate in contrast with other images to develop plot or increase the dramatic effect.

Writers tend to make certain words or images typically their own — especially if hard won — so that individual poems become inseparably part of the larger corpus by which they are recognized and understood. Since authors also share something of their contemporary's concerns, those concerns and attendant images will illustrate and shape their own writing. And such concerns are important. Overworked editors of poetry magazines discern immediately from the attendant imagery whether a poem submitted will enhance the brand image of the publication, and pass the poem on or out. More important than images personally meaningful are the symbols, sexual images and myths that express the deepest natures of a community. In short, imagery is powerful, but needs careful handling.

Imagery in Poetry Today

Now we look at imagery in action, drawing examples from contemporary British poetry.

1. Carole Ann Duffy's Adultery evokes the radiance and guilt of an illicit affair. Stanza 2/3 is conventional enough with its portrayal of increased desire and vulnerability:

you are naked under your clothes all day,

But then comes the withering:

Slim with deceit.

Why is this so effective? Perhaps it is the several levels of meaning: a. The speaker, now a desirable woman again, imagines the figure she possessed before her marriage became so humdrum. b. Just as the relationship is based on deceit, so is image the speaker holds of herself. She is not slim, and the body, vibrant beneath the clothes, is flagrantly other than it appears. c. Slim applies to the affair — being only for sex, the relationship lacks the acceptance and fullness of a proper liaison. d. With deceit hints at the social cost of the deception, that the subterfuge demeans her, and reduces the sexual enjoyment. e. Slim suggests concentration, that the sexual organs are ravenous, focused on their own appetites. f. The phrase — with its overtones of trim, brief, concealment, seat, etc. — creates a visual embodiment of the pudenda. After the sexual largess of naked under your clothes all day the verse tapers down into neat, wry impression of what is only flimsily hidden from view. In short, a compressed imagery, which releases its meaning slowly.

2. Sebastian Barry's poem Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever is set against the religious divides in Ireland. Fanny, a Quaker and on her way to marry a Catholic lithographer in Cork City, is betraying not only her faith, but the sexual restraints of Protestantism. She passes:

on the lightly
Grassed dunes, something tart in the air
While she walked, banging her skirts.

Even in this short excerpt, the sexual punning — fanny, tart, banging — shouts the overpowering pull of sex. Perhaps the method is overdone, but throughout the poem an overt Freudian imagery — hindview, brush, shoving, bushes, rustle, smooth, come, smells, strewn, lightly grassed, bosom, seabox — seems to flaunt itself at the young woman and push her enterprise into the future. The poem ends by looking ahead to the sadly conventional occupations of her children. A Pilgrim's Progress or commentary on the ephemeral nature of sexual desire? Perhaps both. The relentless imagery creates a thicket of hopes and temptations for the young woman.

2. Michael Hulse's The Country of Pain and Redemption ends with:

He learns to say yes, say yes, and goes
home to a lighted house, a dazzle of
horror, security, darkness and love.

What could be more complete? But this is not the usual reaction to an accepted proposal of marriage. The young man is dying, the victim of a car crash or terrorist bomb. The proposal is being made to him by his lover, who is now cradling his head and extracting some keepsake from these wrecked hopes. The lighted house is heaven or hell or the end of things. Note how wonderfully apt is dazzle — the sharpness of the image, its purely sensory nature, the bewilderment of things dark and light. The extended image gathers force as the poem comes strikingly to an end.

3. Frank Kuppner's A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty depicts a scholar selecting the Sung Dynasty literature that should be saved for posterity. Stolidly he ponders the old text in front of him:

Delight something buttocks pliant something;
Sunburst something buttocks something balcony

It is an onerous responsibility, but the old man is tormented by thoughts of the serving girl. Into his lapses of concentration (the continual something in the poem) erupt images of her obvious charms. In the end he succumbs, and the great glories of the Sung Dynasty are briefly forgotten. The poem is not simply a piece of fun, but wryly underlines the frail nature of our pretensions and responsibilities.

4. Crinkle, near Birr is a dangerous poem. Paul Durcan starts with

Daddy and I were lovers,

and ends with

I lay on my back in the waters of his silence,
The silence of a diffident, chivalrous bridegroom,
And he carried me in his two hands home to bed.

Is this incest, the boy's thoughts only, or a comment on the sexual nature of father-son bonding? There are hints of all three, but the poem is more an extended metaphor of boyhood love, which does not shy away from taboo aspects. An uncomfortable poem, but one with lines of shining accomplishment — we spawned our own selves in our hotel bedroom ... the quality of his silence when he was happy — again achieved by the compelling imagery. No one supposes that these views are edifying, or adequate to the full experience of sex or love. The poems are only partial successes on other grounds, moreover. But these examples of imagery in poetry are a powerful means to thinking, and allows literature to explore what pulp fiction serves up as stock responses.

(All these poems can be found in The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley: 1993 Bloodaxe Books — to which acknowledgement is made.)


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.