Term: Imagery

Imagery is the name given to the elements in a poem that spark off the senses. Despite "image" being a synonym for "picture", images need not be only visual; any of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) can respond to what a poet writes. Examples of non-visual imagery can be found in Ken Smith's 'In Praise of Vodka', where he describes the drink as having "the taste of air, of wind on fields, / the wind through the long wet forest", and James Berry's 'Seashell', which puts the "ocean sighs" right in a listener's ear.

A poet could simply state, say, "I see a tree", but it is possible to conjure up much more specific images using techniques such as simile ("a tree like a spiky rocket"), metaphor ("a green cloud riding a pole") or synechdoche ("bare, black branches") - each of these suggests a different kind of tree. Techniques, such as these, that can be used to create powerful images are called figurative language, and can also include onomatopoeia, metonymy and personification.

One of the great pleasures of poetry is discovering a particularly powerful image; the Imagists of the early 20th century felt it was the most important aspect, so were devoted to finding strong images and presenting them in the clearest language possible. Of course, not every poem is an Imagist poem, but making images is something that nearly every poem in the Archive does.

An interesting contrast in imagery can be found by comparing Alison Croggon's 'The Elwood Organic Fruit and Vegetable Shop' with Allen Ginsberg's 'A Supermarket in California'; although both poets seem to like the shops they write about, Ginsberg's shop is full of hard, bright things, corralled into aisles, featuring neon, tins and freezers, while the organic shop is full of images of soft, natural things rubbing against one another in sunlight. Without it being said explicitly, the imagery makes it clear that the supermarket is big, boxy, and tidy, unlike the cosy Elwood's. This is partly done with the visual images that are drawn, and in part with Croggon's images that mix the senses (this is called synaesthesia), such as the strawberries with their "klaxons of sweetness" or the gardens with "well-groomed scents", having the way the imagery is made correspond with what the imagery shows.

How to use this term

Fleur Adcock's poem, 'Leaving the Tate', uses imagery of picture-making to build up the overlap between art and sight at the centre of the poem.

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Daljit Nagra

From time to time a poet is in residence at the Poetry Archive, talking about poetry with anyone who wants to join in the conversation.

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