Saturday, May 5, 2012

Prompt #99 – Imagery

For those of you who don’t subscribe to Diane Lockward’s excellent poetry newsletter, I thought you might enjoy working with the craft tip I wrote for the May issue (see below if you'd like to receive the newsletter).
                                               In a Station of the Metro
                                                                            by Ezra Pound

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

What is it about the above poem that captures the imagination? It’s a short poem, only two lines, and it “says” little. There are only two images in this poem – the apparition of the faces and the tree petals to which those faces are compared. However, Pound evokes thoughts about attraction, human beauty, and springtime; we feel his surprise and awe. He might have written “I stepped into the metro and saw faces in the crowd that looked like tree blossoms.” The haunting quality and the heart of Pound’s words are powered by a fundamental component of poetry – imagery.

Imagery is best explained as vivid description or figures of speech used to recreate things seen (or otherwise perceived) through written language. Imagery is often explained as the process of creating “mind pictures” with words but, while image is synonymous with picture, effective imagery is not exclusively visual and may spark any of the senses. Imagery enhances meaning, develops tone, enriches context, creates tension, and establishes voice. It can also be a means through which a poet reveals a poem’s emotional center. 

In my work with poets in workshops and critiquing sessions, I offer a the following suggestions for creating successful images. 

1. Always be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements. Images aren’t about abstractions or philosophical musings. Rather, they evoke the meaning and truth of human experiences in perceptible and “actual” terms.                                                                                                                                                  
2. Avoid lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions lend themselves well to effective imagery. The imagery “wow factor” lies in language that is unexpected and deceptively simple. 

3. Watch out for clichéd images. Examine your poems carefully and note any phrases or lines that seem familiar or general. Work to create images that are striking and fresh – distinctive and different. Think in terms of similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language, and how you can use these to enhance your images. I love this related quote from W. H. Auden: [A poem] “must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.” That unique perspective can be articulated through imagery. 

4. Don’t merely “ornament” your poems with images. Good imagery isn’t a pair of Louboutin shoes or a Rolex watch. Imagery doesn’t “dress up” a poem and should be only be used to present your subject exactly as you perceive it. Imagery that’s too deliberate or self-consciously “poetical” can ruin an otherwise good poem. Don’t be clever or cutesy. Let your images evolve organically with just the right amount of tweaking.

5. Be wary of “imagery overkill.” Too many or over-written images can be tedious if not mind-numbing. When asked how many images a mid-sized poem should contain, my answer is always the same: if you look at poem you’re writing and only find five great lines, then the poem should only be five lines long; in the same way, if you look at a poem you’re working on and only find a single brilliant image, then the poem should only contain a single image. And this in closing: sometimes we write images we love but which aren’t quite “right” for the poem in which we’ve placed them. When this happens, be prepared to sacrifice an image you love for the sake of the poem. The poem (and your readers) will be grateful.

This week, try writing a poem in which you include some striking imagery. One way to begin is to simply make a list of images. Focus on details and originality of expression. The choose one image give it image its head – let it lead you into a poem.

Examples of Imagery


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  1. I'm new to your blog, Adele, and I'm overwhelmed by how fantastic it is!

    It's great to know about Diane's newsletter! I heard her read some time ago and was impressed by her content and style.

    (Sorry, I can't figure out how to post with anything but "Anonymous.")

    Jean W.

    1. Welcome, Jean! Thanks for your kinds words. I hope you'll visit often and that you'll find the prompts useful and the sample poems enjoyable!

      No worries about posting under "Anonymous" - a few other readers do the same.

  2. If

    If life were a metaphor
    Then the incandescent epiphany
    Could rise,
    An evening cactus flower,
    Jesus alone in the desert
    Wrestling with demons.

    I awaken,
    Late for work.

    1. Hi Russ! It's great to see you back!

      Dream imagery can be startling and vivid, as in your poem!

  3. A Poem with No Name

    looking out the water-stained window
    at the pale yellow light
    filtering through the palms
    peace creeps up on me
    vibrating to the tunes
    of chirping snowbirds
    even the noisy frig
    is momentarily quiet
    enjoying Sunday stillness

    1. Nice, Risa! Thanks so much for sharing this with us!

  4. Dear Adele,
    I just read 18 pages about " In a Station of the Metro"!!!
    For sure I understood that:

    "The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
    Petals on a wet, black bough."

    is different from:

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

    But the earliest printing of "In a Station" in the April 1913 issue of Poetry was spaced and punctuated thus:

    "The apparition of these faces in the crowd
    Petals on a wet, black bough"

    I like more this one, but Iago' version of the poem is:

    " Apparitions of these faces in the crowd
    Petals a wet black bough"

    " Visioni di questi volti tra la folla
    Petali un umido ramo nero"

    I'm joking. Of course

    1. Jago,

      If you have a blog or a website, please post the link!

      Thank you!


  5. Hi Jago,

    It's always good to hear from you. I like the Italian version best! :-)

    Thanks for the sharing!

  6. Such a great help, Adele. Thank you!

    I especially like #5 and further suggest that writers record the images they "cut" in a notebook for possible future use.

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

    1. Great suggestion, Maire! Thanks for your comment!

  7. Great post, Adele! All very useful points in deciphering quality imagery in poetry. I'll be putting these to practice. Thank you, and also for that great list of poems in April!

    1. Hi Hannah!

      Thanks for your kind words and for your comment! I'm glad to know that the imagery ideas are useful and that you enjoyed the April poems.