What is meant by imagery and what roles does it play in poetry?  Is a poem without imagery possible?

According to Abrams:

          “Imagery” … signif[ies] all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem … whether by

literal description, by allusion, or in the vehicles … of

its similes and metaphors. (Abrams, 1993, p. 86)

The use of imagery collectively can include more than the five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.  It can also include the perception of movement and the notion of temperature.  Imagery can also focus narrowly on “visible objects and scenes” (ibid, p. 87), or figuratively which incorporates the use of symbols, themes, and motifs as well as similes and metaphors.

An effective piece of imagery of these types is the second stanza of ‘Goodbye’ by Walter de la Mare (Norton p. 907).

A hardening darkness glasses the haunted eye,

Shines into nothing the watcher’s burnt-out candle,

Wreathes into scentless nothing the wasting incense,

Faints in the outer silence the hunting-cry.

(ibid, p. 907, lines 5-8)

About the moment of approaching death, the images are evoked by the use of sensory and metaphorical description.

Between the years of 1912 and 1917 there flourished in America a poetic movement called Imagism.  Amy Lowell voiced their proposals “for a poetry which, abandoning conventional poetic materials and versification, is free to choose any subject and to create its own rhythms, uses common speech, and presents an image that is hard, clear, and concentrated.” (Abrams, 1993, p.88)  This led to poems in free verse, concise, opinionless, often juxtaposing opposing or unrelated images to create the whole.

Ezra Pound’s famous poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (Norton, p. 963) fits these parameters precisely.  The title appears to be a part of the poem, placing it in a context, a setting –

         The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

          Petals on a wet, black bough.

          (ibid, p. 963, lines 1-2)

The imagery is sparse, concise, expressing in those few words a wealth of images that seem at odds with each other while contributing to the overall impression of looking down into the underground railway station at the upturned faces.  Pound describes a visual experience without comment.

In his poem ‘The Garden’ (Norton, p. 962) Pound describes a scene in Kensington Gardens, not passing judgement but commenting socially.  He juxtaposes the image of the wafting, fragile lady “dying piecemeal / of a sort of emotional anemia” (ibid, p. 962, lines 3-4) against that of the street urchins “a rabble / Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.” (ibid, p. 962, lines 5-6)   She is directionless while they are an organised group.  He follows this with the comment linked to its biblical counterpart “They (the meek) shall inherit the earth.” (ibid, p. 962, line 7)  By its imagery it evokes the physical endurance of the poor and the sense of apathy and  isolation which is the fate of the upper class –

          In her is the end of breeding.

          Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

          She would like some one to speak to her,

          And is almost afraid that I

                    will commit that indiscretion.

          (ibid, p. 962, lines 8-12)

An example of an image-bound poem, where the description creates a clear, hard visual picture, is ‘Poem’ by William Carlos Williams (Norton, p. 946).  While it has a visible structure, with its four three-line stanzas, it is an illusion.  Written in free verse, each stanza runs over into the next, nothing rhymes, and its rhythms are of common speech.  The subject matter is simple, domestic, involving the movement of a cat, over a jamcloset and into an empty flowerpot.

His poem ‘The Bull’ (Norton, p. 946) is more descriptive, utilising figurative language and symbolic references to create the imagery.  The bull is likened to a God in captivity – “Olympian” yet “ringed, haltered, chained / to a drag” (ibid, p. 946, lines 2-3).  Stanzas two and three describe his solitary life and physical actions literally, moving into stanza four which deals with the philosophy of time passing – is it different for Gods?  In the next two stanzas Williams turns to metaphorical allusions to connote the unreality of his appearance and existence – “his substance hard / as ivory or glass-“. (ibid, p. 946, lines 21-22)  Finishing in the last stanza with a visual description, with a metaphorical twist in the last line, which undermines the picture of strength and durability previously created –

he nods

the hair between his horns

and eyes matted

with hyacinthine curls

(ibid, p. 946, lines 26-29)

Williams implies that the bull, like his curls, is as fragile and impermanent as a flower.

Influenced by the Imagists, T S Eliot’s imagery in his ‘Preludes’ (Norton, p. 997-8) is concise, sensory, metaphorical, evocative.  “The burnt-out ends of smoky days” (ibid, p. 997, line 4) conjures up an atmospheric image linked mentally with the butts of cigarettes, the dregs, the grimiest endings of things.  The poem abounds with sensory images “A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps” and “the sparrows in the gutters”, “with smell of steaks in passageways”, “of faint stale smells of beer”, “early coffee stands”, “withered leaves”, “a blanket”, “soiled hands”, and “short square fingers stuffing pipes”. (ibid, pp. 997-8, lines 12, 32, 2, 15,18, 7, 24, 38, 43)  Williams comments “I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images, and cling:” (ibid, p. 998, lines 48-9) revealing the importance of imagery to him and his poetry.

Also influenced by the Imagists, Wallace Stevens used precise imagery to invoke the difference between the order of the man-made and the chaos of nature in his poem ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ (Norton, p. 931)  He describes the “slovenly wilderness / … that sprawled around, no longer wild.” (ibid, p. 931, lines 4 & 6) in contrast to the jar that was “gray and bare /…. round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air”. (ibid, p. 931, lines 10, 7-8)  Yet this man-made object was inanimate, unable to give life to “bird or bush” (ibid, p. 931, line 11) as the uncontrolled nature could.

While I believe it is possible to have poetry that contains no opinions, I do not believe that poetry can exist without imagery.  Emotional, political, Romantic, and even Postmodern poetry all rely on images to carry their ‘message’, to give their content its context.

(C) Jud House 22/11/1998


Abrams, M H (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.  New York:  W W Norton & Company. (Referred to as NORTON)

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