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What is imagery in poetry?

By BBC Maestro

Poetry
Last updated: 27 November 2023

Imagery in poetry uses language to engage our senses. The well-chosen words and rich descriptions are so vivid, that we don’t just read the poem: we’re immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of the poet’s world.

When figurative language is used at its best, the poem appeals to all our senses – the term 'imagery' is actually rather misleading because the poetic language isn’t simply visual. In this article, we’ll take a look at how imagery affects a poem, along with some famous examples.

How do you explain imagery in poetry?

In its literary meaning, imagery refers to the language and techniques used by writers to engage their readers’ senses. The poet will use figurative language such as similes and metaphors to create rich descriptions.

The maxim of good imagery is “Show, don’t tell”. Instead of telling us that “the wind blew the dead leaves” in Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote:

"O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,"

 

This is how to use imagery in a poem: make the experience for the reader as rich as possible.

What are different types of imagery?

The main types of imagery in poetry are related to our senses. So, when we’re talking about poetic imagery, we have:

  • Visual imagery. The poet paints a picture by describing colours, shapes, textures, patterns, tones and light. “I think of the verse as a canvas”, writes Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy.
  • Auditory imagery. Techniques such as onomatopoeia and repetition recreate sounds for the reader.
  • Tactile imagery. A poem using tactile imagery will make you feel like there’s sand or wet grass beneath your feet, or that you’re stroking a warm, furry dog or trailing your hands along smooth, cool marble. Tactile imagery appeals to our sense of our immediate environment.
  • Olfactory imagery. What does this poem smell like? Wood smoke, perfume, street food, damp leaves, fresh flowers?
  • Gustatory imagery. A little less common than the other four, gustatory imagery focuses on taste. Does the poem make your mouth water, or gag?

 

Why is imagery used in poetry?

The poet uses imagery to draw in their readers, and a sensory experience will evoke stronger emotions. If a poet is writing about the futility of war, a poem which transports the reader to the horrors of the battlefield will arouse feelings of appalled anger, sympathy and disgust. The reader agrees with the poet that war is shameful. From romantic love to social commentary, the senses are used to encourage the reader to agree or empathise with the poet.

A good poet wants to communicate. By engaging with their senses and emotions, the poet gets and keeps the reader’s attention because a sensory poem is also more memorable. Your imagination happily recreates this full and rich landscape, so you’re more likely to remember the poem. It’s also easier to recite a poem that you can visualise strongly.

Examples of imagery in poetry

Let’s take a look at a sample of poems that use imagery across the different senses.

 

Visual imagery

Earlier, we quoted Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” as an example of rich visual poetry. Visual language can also be used to paint a memorable character sketch, like the titular figure in Edward Thomas’ “Bob’s Lane”.

 

"Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob.

Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he

Loved horses. He himself was like a cob.

And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree."

 

This is much more evocative then describing Bob as big, bearded and a bit weather-beaten. When you’re writing poetry, keep “Show, don’t tell” as your mantra. How can you describe Bob’s size without saying simply, “Bob is big”?

 

Auditory imagery

One of the best-known examples of auditory imagery is in The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes:

 

"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.   

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

And the highwayman came riding—

         Riding—riding—

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door."

 

As well as some wonderfully bold visual imagery, the first stanza recreates the rhythm of the robber’s galloping horse. This rhythm is maintained throughout the poem to create momentum and a sense of urgency, as well as the auditory imagery.

 

This uses rhythm and repetition to recreate a sound. William Carlos Williams uses onomatopoeic language, along with alliteration, to evoke the sound of bagpipes in The Dance:

 

"…the squeal and the blare

 and the tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles

tipping their bellies"

Tactile imagery

For a poem that’s so truly tactile, it makes your fingers tingle, try “Pleasures” by Denise Levertov. In her lesson in perception, she writes of exploring “what’s not found at once / but lies within something of another nature”. The fruit is:

 

"cased in rough brown peel, the flesh   

rose-amber, and the seed:

the seed a stone of wood, carved and

 

polished, walnut-colored, formed   

like a brazilnut, but large,

large enough to fill

the hungry palm of a hand."

 

Tactile imagery can also be about intangible sensory feelings, like temperature and climate. H.D (Hilda Doolittle) describes the dense, claustrophobic feel of heavy weather in Heat:

 

"O wind, rend open the heat,

cut apart the heat,

rend it to tatters.

 

Fruit cannot drop

through this thick air – 

fruit cannot fall into heat

that presses up and blunts 

the points of pears

and rounds the grapes.

 

Cut the heat – 

plough through it,

turning it on either side

of your path."

 

Recreating physical sensations is no easy task for the poet: its lexicon isn’t as immediate as it is for visual imagery. Carol Ann Duffy recommends keeping a writing journal that you jot your ideas in, including words and phrases that appeal to you. Consciously start noting down tactile language about sensations, textures and temperatures.

Olfactory imagery

Because smell is so closely linked to memory, we can often conjure it up naturally as we read. We know what Shelley’s dead leaves smell like, or Levertov’s fruit. Sometimes, the poet gives us a little nudge to bring scent to centre stage.

 

Randall Jarrell in The Elementary Scene recreates a small, domestic scene that we can easily smell as well as see:

 

"The rotting pumpkin under the stairs

Bundled with switches and the cold ashes

Still holds for me, in its unwavering eyes,

The stinking shapes of cranes and witches,

Their path slanting down the pumpkin’s sky."

 

Theodore Roethke uses this sense in a more poignant way in My Papa’s Walz:

 

"The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;"

 

Smell is so important in nostalgic poetry. From the moth balls in your grandmother’s wardrobe to the coconutty scent of sunblock, describing scents is a powerful way to create a feeling of time and place.

 

Gustatory imagery

Our sense of taste provides the poet with another strong sensory memory to work with. Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is a seductive place to shop because its produce is described so lovingly and carefully:

 

“Our grapes fresh from the vine,

Pomegranates full and fine,

Dates and sharp bullaces,

Rare pears and greengages,

Damsons and bilberries,

Taste them and try:

Currants and gooseberries,

Bright-fire-like barberries,

Figs to fill your mouth,

Citrons from the South,

Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;

Come buy, come buy.”

 

Like the narrator, we’re tempted by the goblin’s rich sales pitch. If you’re appealing to this sense, think of your palate as you write: is the food, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, delicious, disgusting? Combine this with visual imagery because as the saying goes, “we eat with our eyes”.

 

Many poems use a combination of different imagery like this, creating a landscape of the senses that draws you in and makes you feel like part of the poem. For examples of poets that use all five senses for an immersive effect, try Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy, and explore further works by William Carlos Williams, Shelley and H.D.

 

Why do poets use imagery?  Explore the BBC Maestro poetry course, taught by former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, which looks at poetic imagery along with other poetry techniques and poetic forms.

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