Imagery is used in poetry to help the writing appeal to the senses. Imagery is one of the seven categories of figurative language.
Imagery intensifies the impact of the poet's language as he shows us with his words rather than just telling us what he feels. Song lyrics are also full of imagery.
This is an excerpt from "Preludes," an imagery poem by T. S. Eliot. This is an excellent example of visual imagery and auditory imagery. You can almost see and hear the horse steaming and stamping and smell the steaks:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
Alfred Tennyson was another poet who made great use of visual imagery. See if you can get a clear picture of the summer night he describes in this poem "Summer Night:"
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.
Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.
Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.
Next is an excerpt from "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth. The first and last stanzas show a progression of the poet's emotions using visual imagery.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
This famous poem by Theodore Rothke is an excellent example of olfactory and tactile imagery with plenty of visual imagery thrown in for good measure. The effect is powerful.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
"This Is Just to Say" is an amazing example of gustatory imagery or imagery involving taste. There’s more going on beneath the surface of this poem, but the vivid description of taste draws the reader in.
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Imagery in poems is just as relevant today as it was during the Romantic period. Take these examples by Kelly Roper from our sister site LoveToKnow.com, starting with "Egret Rising."
Like a phoenix rising not from flames but watery reeds,
The egret flapped its wings and gracefully rose up from the weeds.
The flash of white feathers shone against green leaves and clear blue sky,
The majestic bird set a course unknown and swiftly away did fly.
In "Man Versus Pepper," Roper vividly describes one man's experience with extra spicy food.
One sniff gives a clue of the heat within.
First bite feels like swallowing a lighted blow torch,
And tears stream from his eyes like a flash flood
As the dying ghost pepper delivers its savage revenge.
And finally, "Kissed by Snow" offers a wintry vibe.
Standing in darkness with face upturned as
Frosty, feathery stars drift down from the sky
And land like gentle kisses from cold lips
On my cheeks, my nose, my lips and closed eyes.
In addition to the different types of imagery seen in these poetry examples, there are six other devices that a poet uses to make the language of his poems figurative. The reader's senses are heightened, and he will see things the way the poet does. These are the other types of figurative language:
- Simile - A simile is used to compare two things using the words like and as.
- Metaphor - A metaphor sounds like a false statement, until you realize the similarities between the two things being compared.
- Alliteration - In alliteration, the first consonant sound is repeated in several words.
- Personification - Personification is giving human characteristics to objects, animals, or ideas.
- Onomatopoeia - Onomatopoeia is the use of words that sound mimic sounds, or sound like what they mean.
- Hyperbole - Hyperbole is a ridiculous exaggeration that can be funny and makes a point.
Imagery helps poetry appeal to the senses as they describe living things or inanimate objects, more so than other categories of figurative language. This makes imagery one of the most powerful ways to write a poem that speaks to your writer.
Ultimately, imagery is about sharing perspective. If you describe something vividly, your reader must take the perspective of the speaker in your poem. The sensory details make the audience feel as if they are present in the situation you are sharing, allowing them to deeply feel the emotion you describe as well.