Learning Image and Description
In order to imagine, we begin with an image. The imagination gets triggered by images and descriptions when we read, making us feel as though we are in the scene. You can think of imagery as an entryway into a poem: a physical realm allowing us to explore the mind of the poet. The images and descriptions also make up the stuff of the poem: the surprising, sumptuous, practical, and impractical items (such as shorts, some sunscreen, that elm tree, and your grandmother’s pearl earrings) packed within. A reader’s interaction with a poem is largely created through the collection of images that animate the language and make us feel we have just participated in an experience.
Images are everywhere in writing, and my introduction is no exception. It’s hard to define an image without using one in the process. While writing this essay I have become hyper-aware that most of the words I use to define image are, in fact, saddled with the physical themselves. Think of it: I just wrote transport, triggered, entryway, packed, and saddled! The physical world and senses are both at the core of our human experience, so imagery and description are often a central aspect of poetry, even in those poems that aim to describe what cannot be seen, such as thoughts and emotions.
It makes sense, then, that if you want to write poems that are engaging and lively, you should start with learning how to craft an image and to develop your skills of description. Many poetry instructors teach about imagery and description in the first weeks of their poetry courses, if not in the very first class. Not only is imagery everywhere in our lives, it is a wonderful way to start writing poetry: you can focus on something concrete that you can describe, rather than jumping right into the more complicated work of writing about emotions or ideas. Here’s an easy way in: start by writing about what’s on your desk, or a tree outside your window, or your father’s beard. With a low-stakes writing exercise like this, you can practice the craft of trying to render the world to a reader in all its sensory richness.
A Few Ways to Begin
The poetic definition of the term image is broader than our everyday one, and this is important to emphasize: the poetic image is not just visual but an activation of any of the five senses. Although in our highly visual culture we tend to think of the visual by default, in fact some of the most evocative imagery engages the nose, the ear, the sense of touch or taste.
Another way teachers often present this subject is to discuss the appeal of showing (as opposed to telling or explaining) the object at hand. Again, in using the word “show” we are limited by the language of our culture—showing seems to refer to sight, but can also encompass other senses. In a poem one can show the sound of the neighbor’s cough, or the feel of the cotton of a lover’s shirt against the speaker’s face, or the smell of the pond in a Vermont town in winter. You can start by listing such sensory evocations, to become more aware of the imagery you come into contact with every day, as well as the images contained in, or as, your memories. Try this preliminary two-part exercise:
1. Sit in a public space for at least 30 minutes. Choose a place others are passing through (a school quadrangle, coffee shop, library, bus stop, etc.). Try to observe, using all five senses, what is happening around you. Record, in list form and in as much detail as possible, at least 20 different images that catch your attention.
2. Then, spending at least 30 minutes on your own in a quiet space, go inward. Think of strong sensory memories and try to capture—again in list form, and without worrying about providing explanatory context for a reader—those memories in language, conveying the strongest sensory details.
To take imagery deeper, and explore its potential for catalyzing new poems, you could expand upon the observation exercise above. For example, try taking one image from your observation and writing a page about it, not limiting yourself to what you see and hear and smell directly anymore, but allowing the sensory input to spark other thoughts, memories, images, story, and emotional weight. Robert Pinsky’s “Shirt” seems to do just this, beginning as it does with a physical examination of how a shirt is made: “The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams, / The nearly invisible stitches along the collar …” We imagine the writer may actually be looking at a shirt as he begins writing this. But then the imagination takes over, and the shirt’s journey comes to life: “the collar / Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians / Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break.” By line 10 of the poem we are in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. Then a jaunt through Scotland, and finally the modern-day factory in South Carolina where this shirt has received its inspection by someone named Irma (a detail we presume the speaker knew from finding the inspection sticker on the inside of the fabric). The poem takes us on a high-speed, higher-intensity whirl through history, reimagining its scenes, and ends back where it started, in close examination of this shirt’s physical features, but with new import: “the buttons of simulated bone, / the buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters / Printed in black on neckband and tail.”
To continue with the clothing theme, we might also look at Kim Addonizio’s “‘What Do Women Want?’” This poem launches its meditation from the subject of a red dress. The dress is a fantasy, we quickly see, so Addonizio’s speaker is not physically handling it as Pinsky’s speaker does. Instead, she describes the feel of it, and feel in it: “I want it sleeveless and backless, / this dress, so no one has to guess / what’s underneath.” From here the speaker imagines she is wearing it, walking through her urban neighborhood, newly attuned to all the other details around her because of the attention she attracts in this radiant dress:
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
Once we start focusing on the richness of the description here, we see images within images. This poem can help us to understand how an image potentially launches a poem into the world of the imagination. Addonizio’s lush, energetic portraiture also shows us how images breed images and images breed ideas. She started with one concrete and finite thing—that red dress. But by the time we’ve caught our breath, the poem has expanded exponentially in time, object, and space: she sees a whole human lifespan, and an intricate and bustling urban landscape. What is the central image of this poem? First it seems to be the dress, then the speaker’s imagined vision of herself in the dress, then perhaps the bird’s-eye view of the scene in the neighborhood as a whole. And further, which parts are details—additions, helpful but not central—and which are images? There may be multiple answers to these questions, depending on the reader’s interpretation of the poem.
Poets have, at different cultural moments, taken particular interest in defining image and its use in the poem. In the early 20th century, Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell became the (often warring) figureheads for the Imagist movement, a loose group of poets who rejected the sentimentality of the Romantic and Victorian periods and called for a return to economy of language and precision of image. Their general philosophy is seen as the catalyst for Modernism.
In his prescriptive essay, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Pound defined the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” He went on to say that this “complex” should provoke the feeling of freedom, or sudden growth, such as we experience in looking at great works of art. The image itself, he argued, is the proper and adequate symbol, and is dulled by abstract language. In privileging the image as the central element of the poem, Pound referred to the excavation of the object in poetry as finding and employing its “luminous details.” The luminous details are those details that reveal and transmit an image most swiftly and deeply. “Use either no ornament or good ornament,” Pound further warned, underscoring his advice to find the most compelling, revealing words for the descriptive task rather than simply showing everything. In other words, the task of writing a descriptive poem is not akin to that of a camera panning across a scene. The mind of the poet acts as a filter, finding the most resonant, charged details to transmit the image to the reader.
The Imagists’ ideas about imagery and description continue to deeply influence contemporary poetry. Those associated with the Imagist movement included H.D., William Carlos Williams, Ford Madox Ford, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Marianne Moore. Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” H.D.’s “The Sea Iris,” and Moore’s “The Fish” all provide excellent examples of how focus on the single image and finding its “luminous details” can provide great satisfaction, even revelation, for the reader.
Definitions and Some Excavation Exercises
Image deepens, activates, invokes, invites. All of these verbs suggest that images serve to bring readers somewhere; images move us and move poems forward. They’re hard to define in isolation because they don’t sit still. Take a look at Rick Barot’s poem “The Wooden Overcoat” to listen in on another poet wrestling with how to define imagery. He offers, by way of example,
If the dandelion on the sidewalk ismere detail, the dandelion inked on a friend’s bicepis an image because it moves when her body does, even when a shirt covers the little thorny black sunon a thin stalk.
The whole poem considers, in a lovely and intimate way, what makes an image, and why it moves us.
On top of that, we have the credo “No ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams famously proclaimed. Those of us who don’t identify ourselves as fully belonging to the Imagist school might soften the strength of that statement, but ultimately come to a similar point: the image helps reveal ideas, both in the poems and to the writer herself.
Ultimately, we might say that the close study of imagery is a way to escape, transcend, or recontextualize the self. This is a helpful entry point—an open door, to use an image—for those new to the craft of poetry. It welcomes you and your perspectives, and focuses you on the physical world around you, offering far more subjects and angles of approach than you dreamed you had.
To begin to excavate these subjects more deeply, try to “trace” an image poem you admire. A trace is an act of imitation in which you choose your own subject (locale, weather, objects, etc.) and then apply it to the master poem, in effect rewriting the poem with different objects. Try to adhere as closely as possible to the author’s use of the parts of speech, sentence structure, and every other stylistic element of the master poem. Some poems that might give you great results include “Little Exercise” by Elizabeth Bishop, “Fiesta Melons” by Sylvia Plath, “Piano” by D.H. Lawrence, and “Devon House” by C. Dale Young.
For example, you read Bishop’s poem, which begins, “Think of the storm roaming the sky uneasily / like a dog looking for a place to sleep in, / listen to it growling.” As the tracer, then, you may decide to describe a quiet snowfall instead; you would begin with “Think of the snow …”—but then what verb? “Roaming” is such an evocative word, suggesting the impending dramatic weather, the unease seeming so present in the sky itself. For snow this impending feeling will be different. Perhaps you decide on “Think of the snow congregating in the sky silently.” Then you must figure out a new image that this sky suggests, a metaphor to parallel Bishop’s stray dog. What will you use?
To attempt to rewrite a poem this way is hugely instructive because it shows us, firstly, the skill involved in the master poem: that to describe anything well, even a seemingly simple thing like a storm or a melon, is immensely difficult and requires great precision of observation and language. Secondly, the act of tracing can help you see the many ways poets use to describe; it shows you many of the tools you might like to employ yourself.
Launching from Image into Device and Technique
A central distinction that teachers will make when discussing image—one that we have already encountered numerous times in the poems we’ve discussed above—is that of literal and figurative language. If we say that literal description relies on careful physical observation, figurative description allows for the imagination to take the reins. For the poem to work well, the observation should be just as clear and precise when presented figuratively (think again of Bishop’s storm as a growling dog) as when presented literally (the storm roaming the sky). Even here, in the literal moment of the poem, “roaming” might be called mild personification, which makes the point that the literal and figurative are not hard barriers, and poets often move about freely between them within a poem, and even within a line.
To look at the difference created by the focus on the literal image versus the figurative, try pairing Tess Taylor’s “Elk at Tomales Bay” with Sylvia Plath’s “You’re.” These are strikingly different poems in almost every way but, at their core, both attempt to direct sharp focus on a single object. In Taylor’s case, that object is a tule elk skeleton, and in Plath’s, it is a developing fetus. Taylor’s poem edges into figurative language at moments, but is grounded in the literal:
Ribs fanned openhollow, emptied of organs. In the bushes its skull.Sockets and sinuses, mandible,its few small teeth.
Contrast that to Plath’s breathless series of figurative descriptors for this unborn and already-loved “you”:
Wrapped up in yourself like a spoolTrawling your dark as owls do.Mute as a turnip from the Fourthof July to All Fools’ Day,O high-riser, my little loaf.
How do the different types of image used help to develop the tones of these poems? How do they present the objects being described? When you read each of these poems, do you find your attention drawn to particular elements of description? How are the language choices focusing your attention and encouraging you to make associations within the poem? Try to think like the poet: how do the choices of image help to develop the overall emotional feel of the poem?
To look at another poem that attempts to freshly present a landscape, check out Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here.” This poem pointedly addresses not just the place itself, but how the poet’s use of image attempts to shape the reader’s perception of that place. This is a poem about the use of images as much as it is a poem that uses images. The setting in this poem is the city of Detroit, and the speaker is frustrated with how readers resist registering the image presented (that there are birds there) because of their stubborn expectation of a different reality (that there must not be birds in this blighted city). But this is all the more reason to keep insisting upon his image. He says, of Detroit,
The birds are hereto root around for breadthe girl’s hands tearand toss like confetti. No,I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,I said confetti, and nonot the confettia tank can make of a building.I mean the confettia boy can’t stop smiling aboutand no his smile isn’t muchlike a skeleton at all. And nohis neighborhood is not like a war zone.
The defense of the image in this poem—there are birds here, he repeats—serves as a reminder of the extent to which imagery can shape how the reader/listener/viewer understands and responds. In this case, the speaker seems dismayed that the reader already has a bunch of preconceived images of his city as a war zone, which are ingrained and hard to shake loose, even with his insistent showing of a joyful, beautiful place. This is a lesson for politics and for writers of poetry: a reminder to present with accuracy and integrity and force, recognizing what we can be up against in doing so.
The poems we have just explored will help you hone your sensory faculties on the physical environment. Now that you are paying attention to the types of images poets choose—whether literal or figurative, and which senses get activated in the imagery—you might think also about how these images do this work. Do they make music together? A percussive rhythm, an alliterative lull, an onomatopoetic evocation? Do they show by synecdoche, personification, hyperbole? It can be fun to explore your many style options here, thinking about how such choices of device change the way the image is perceived. Try some of these quick exercises to broaden your descriptive range and help you discover which modes you like best.
1. Describe a place using a repeated phrase as a refrain (such as “there are birds here”).
2. Describe a person using only non-human metaphors (similar to Plath’s approach in “You’re”).
3. Describe a landscape you know well in a long string of images, literal or figurative, and try to make some of them rhyme.
4. Take a couple of the descriptions you liked best in one of the first three exercises and write them down on a new sheet of paper. Then try to build on them with alliterative description. Make a paragraph/list/bunch of lines that feels pleasurable to say and evokes some cohesive mood, even if it doesn’t mean a lot logically.
5. Describe one very small physical part of a landscape—say, a barn, rather than a whole Nebraska plain—in great physical detail. Try to imbue the small object, through as many senses as possible, with the feeling of the whole locale.
Now that you’re focused on images, look at any poem you love, and the sensory qualities of the language will bloom on the page. To generate your own writing exercises and inspire fresh writing, here are over a dozen poems that I’ve used and admired. This list, of course, could be expanded exponentially.
Jericho Brown, “Hustle”
Jennifer Chang, “Pastoral”
Mark Doty, “A Display of Mackerel”
Claudia Emerson, “Metastasis: Worry-Moth”
Matthea Harvey, “Gradations of Blue”
Sarah Lindsay, “Elegy for the Quagga”
Amy Lowell, “The Blue Scarf”
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Rendezvous”
Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”
Roger Reeves, “Cymothoa Exigua”
Bruce Snider, “Afterlife”
C.D. Wright, “More Blues and the Abstract Truth”
Charles Wright, “Chickamauga"
The stories and poems we cherish most are the ones that either transport us to new places or make us see ordinary things in a new way. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, a reader’s interaction with a poem is created largely through the collection of images that animate the language and make us feel we have just participated in an experience. Now that you’re equipped with different approaches to image-making, be sure to try using images in new and different ways, challenging your own abilities and imagination. The best thing about imagery is that it often shows you, the poet, as much about your subject as it does the reader. Images breed images, and images breed ideas. Let yourself experiment with the possibilities. Be wild, be daring, be alert to your sensory perceptions, and you will find a rich world beyond that wide-flung door.
Poet Rachel Richardson was born and raised in Berkeley, California. She earned a BA at Dartmouth College, an MFA at the University of Michigan, and an MA in folklore at the University of North Carolina. The author of the poetry collections Copperhead (2011) and Hundred-Year Wave (2016), Richardson’s poetry investigates the disjunctions of remembered and...