DonnBusPhotos-007a2x3                        by

                  Donn Taylor

    In my last poetry blog we talked about finding strong words and putting them in emphatic positions in the poetic line. The end of the line is most emphatic; the beginning, next-most emphatic. Now we go on to specific kinds of strong words.
    As Lawrence Perrine wrote, poetry speaks in "higher voltage" than prose. One essential means of achieving that higher voltage is the effective use of images—words or phrases that appeal to one of the five senses. Why important? Because everything we know about the world we live in comes to us through one or more of the five senses. When we appeal to these senses in writing, we imitate the learning method our readers have used all their lives. Images are not only attractive in their own right: they are essential to gaining reader interest.

    Images help make abstract ideas concrete, and they can also help achieve compression of meaning, another desirable characteristic of poetry. An abstract statement might be, “A paid militia costs more than it is worth.” John Dryden made the thought concrete and achieved compression when he called the militia “mouths without hands.”
    As sight is the most powerful of the senses, so visual images are usually the most powerful images. But the most vivid writing appeals to more than one sense, and the skillful writer will find ways to achieve this multiple appeal. A.E. Housman (1859-1936) does so in this stanza from A Shropshire Lad:

                      On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
                           The sheep beside me graze;
                      And yon the gallows used to clank
                           Fast by the four cross ways.

    Of the stanza's 26 syllables, only nine are filled by weak, connective words, and seven ofthose are followed immediately by strong words in accented positions. The imagery appeals toboth sight (moonlit heath, bank, grazing sheep, gallows, cross ways) and sound (clank). In myview, the strong word lonesome is not an image, but falls into a category I call emotionally loaded words (solemn, sorrow, pain, happy, etc.), which also can add interest to poetry.
    William Wordsworth also combines images of sight and sound in these lines from "Resolution and Independence":

                There was a roaring in the wind all night;
                The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
                But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
                The birds are singing in the distant woods….

    Though sight and sound images are the most common, the skillful poet finds appropriate ways to use images of touch, taste, and smell. For touch, we can visit two lines from William Blake's "The Mental Traveller":

                Her fingers number every Nerve
                Just as a miser counts his gold….

    Taste images? If these from John Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" don't make our mouths water, we're very poor gourmets!

                …he from forth the closet brought a heap
            Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
            With jellies soother than the creamy curd
            And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon….

    Then Keats uses a provocative olfactory image to describe the lovers' union:

            Into her dream he melted, as the rose
            Blendeth its odor with the violet,
            Solution sweet….

    To summarize: Images—appeals to the five senses—contribute to poetry's "higher voltage" by making it more vivid and more interesting, and they also contribute to the compression of meaning that characterizes the best poetry.

One thought on “Basic of Poetry Writing II – Images

Marti Pieper

October 21, 2011 - 17 : 29 : 11

Once again, you remind me of a truth that translates from other writing to poetry. And of course you’re right. The lines of poetry that have stayed in my memory have done so by creating powerful images.
Thanks for this insight and more.


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