Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

6.9: Imagery

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Pink cosmos flower blooming

    Image from Pixabay

    To put it simply and directly, creative writing is the language of images. Whereas other forms of writing like news articles, academic essays, and instruction manuals relay information from the writer to the speaker in order to inform or instruct, in fiction and poetry images are how we translate the world into a text so that a reader may experience. If you are a creative writer, then you are an image creator. And to be a master image creator, you need to be really good—really, really good—at finding ways to stimulate a reader’s senses through significant, concrete detail. When poets write, they see through the speaker’s eye, what we call the mind's eye. By writing through the mind’'s eye, you literally describe what the speaker sees in order to recreate the world of the speaker in words on a page so then the reader can translate those words back into images and experience the poem.

    Language is Physical

    If we examine the words associated with the act of writing, we find that language is directly rooted in the physical world of the body. Let's consider the answers to the questions below.

    Q. Where does poetry come from?

    A. It comes from the imagination—

    Imagination. Imagine. Image. This is the language of creative writing. What the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as "a mental picture" which we as writers see through the mind’s eye. When we read writing, our mind processes the words into mental images with our five senses — sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. When we are writing poetry we want to give our readers the world in its raw form; its physical, concrete existence. The more specific we can be, the better.

    For example, note how the following descriptions affect your physical, emotional, and mental experience differently:

    1. The child was sad because it was her first day of school.
    2. Standing in the doorway between her classroom and the sunny sidewalk, four-year-old Meredith twisted her mother’s flowered skirt in her hands, hid her face in its folds, and stained its red silk with the thick mucus of her nose.

    The second example is much more detailed and imagistic than the first. It, therefore, engages our senses and sensibilities much more directly.

    Exercise 6.9.1

    In example two above, vivid details invite your senses to take in the scene. But once a piece of creative writing contains specific images and details, those details begin to have an additional effect on the reader’s intellect as the images resonate into symbols and create connections and suggestions. What effects do the images in the above example have on your intellect? What types of connections, contrasts, resonance, and suggestions do the images make? For example, notice the contrast between the shady classroom and the sunny sidewalk. What types of interpretations does this image invite? What others do you perceive?

    Q. How does poetry affect the reader?

    A. With sensations—

    Sensation. Sensual. Sense. This is how we make sense of the writing. How we make sense of the words on the page. We do not understand through abstract thought. We understand mentally through what our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin understand physically. Merriam-Webster defines "sense" as:

    One of the five natural powers (touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing) through which you receive information about the world around you.

    "Show Don’t Tell"

    How many of you have heard this phrase before? Maybe you heard it in your high school creative writing or English classroom? Or maybe this is the first time you are hearing it. The phrase reminds me of the television show Lassie in which eleven-year-old Timmy’s collie named Lassie would run to tell Timmy’s family whenever Timmy was in trouble and needed rescuing. Timmy was curious and always getting into trouble. Timmy’s family couldn’t do anything to help him until Lassie did more than bark; Lassie had to show them exactly what was wrong by leading them directly to Timmy so they could see precisely what the matter was.

    In this analogy, the language of your poem can either bark generally or lead specifically. And you do this with either general, abstract words that make a reader think, or you do this with specific, concrete words that allow a reader to see. The adage "Show don’t tell" is shorthand for the most important tenet of creative writing. It asks you to create with an attention to the concrete, physical world rather than telling with abstract words which produce thoughts about the speaker's experience or ideas instead of feelings in the reader's body through the five senses.

    Types of Sensory Images

    In the following poems, images can not only be seen, but heard, tasted, smelled, and felt. Here are some examples of the different types of imagery we use in poetry. Many use more than one kind:

    Auditory Imagery

    She sinks her eight ball, drinks me under
    the table. I whimper for a date, a smooch,
    a slap. She hits the jukebox, that old song.

    (Mike Dockins, from “American Love Story”)

    prayer for the hat to be a puller
    for her even as it circles the city
    or enters someone else's flat, hat
    have an arm to keep her from his fist,
    moon and train, moon and train, moon
    and train: pull her, pull her, pull her.

    (Michael Burkard, from "Hat Angel")

    Gustatory Imagery

    I love saying the name. Each sweet syllable seems like there ought to be a crush of sugar on your tongue, a tiny reward just for saying the word. These milk-balls, fried golden and soaked in sugar syrup, are glassed up in a luxuriously oversized jar that my grandmother collects under her spice table to store homemade mango and spicy lime pickles.
    (Aimee Nezhukumatathil, from “Gulabjamoon Jar”)

    Olfactory Imagery

    I loved him most
    when he came home from work,
    his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
    his denim shirt ringed with sweat
    and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
    of the ocean.

    (Dorianne Laux, from “The Shipfitter’s Wife”)

    On things asleep: No balm :
    A kingdom of stinks and sighs,
    Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum,
    Worse than castoreum of mink or weasel,
    Saliva dripping from warm microphones,
    Agony of crucifixion on barstools.

    (Theodore Roethke, from “The Longing”)

    Tactile Imagery

    I am a man of many heads. Each one capable of loving you, each one unwrapping your paper delicately by hand, slipping my fingernail beneath your coating till I can feel the smooth skin of your nakedness.
    (Robert Evory, from “Garlic”)

    I love the sound of the bone against the plate
    and the fortress-like look of it
    lying before me in a moat of risotto,
    the meat soft as the leg of an angel
    who has lived a purely airborne existence.

    (Billy Collins, from “Osso Bucco”)

    Visual Imagery

    The fish rises with a red body in the green pond.
    Under the arch of heaven
    The fisherman travels smoothly in his blue skiff.

    (Georg Trakl, from “The Sun,” translated by Robert Bly and James Wright)

    They decide to exchange heads.
    Barbie squeezes the small opening under her chin
    over Ken’s bulging neck socket. His wide jaw line jostles
    atop his girlfriend’s body, loosely,
    like one of those nodding novelty dogs
    destined to gaze from the back window of cars.

    (Denise Duhamel, from “Kinky”)

    Notice not only how imagistic these examples are, but how specific the details are, as well. In the poem "Hat Angel," Michael Burkard recreates the sound that the train makes in the last two lines through his use of diction and line breaks. And in "Kinky," Denise Duhamel attends to the small details of a Barbie doll—"the small opening under her chin" while Robert Evory in "Garlic" brings our eye to the meeting of the delicate paper of a garlic clove and a fingernail. These poems describe a pair of pants, a Barbie doll, and a garlic clove the way we would see them if we were holding them in our hands. And with Billy Collins in his poem "Osso Bucco," we get the sense that we are looking closer and closer and closer at the meat on his (on our!) plate. In these examples, the reader must be—cannot avoid being—sensually immersed in these images, which trigger the five senses—sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing—through memory and imagination to create an actual experience for the reader. We do not read about George Trakl’s experience on the water in the poem "Sun"; we are there ourselves.

    Exercise 6.9.1

    Click on the following link to read Gary Snyder’s poem "The Bath." Lines 1-9 are a good example of how the senses may be activated in multiple ways from one image. For example, the line "steaming air and crackle of waterdrops" can be classified as auditory, visual, and tactile. We see the steam and drops, hear the crackle, feel the heat.

    Can you identify any other images that engage more than one sense? After Snyder, return to the preceding examples and see if you can identify places where more than one sense is being used. How are your senses activated in the poems? What pictures do you see when you take the images in? Go through each poem and underline examples of objects you can touch — pants, waistband, snap, zipper, et cetera.


    The second and third definitions reflect the impact of poetic images on a reader. These poetic images produce vision in the reader by manifesting "to the senses" "something immaterial." In other words, a reader’s senses react to the vision, or images of an "object," created by the poem as though that object were actually real. With poetry, those images give way to "a thought, concept," or idea. In the above example describing Meredith’s first day of school, for instance, we are led to the thought or concept of how she is sad via the images.

    Language is the personal or private choice of words the speaker uses to express himself. Poetry makes pictures with words.

    • Are there any words that are repeated or that stand out?
    • Are the sentences long or short?

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 6.9: Imagery is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

    • Was this article helpful?