Difficulty Level 1/5
Imagery is the backbone of lyric poetry. Crash course in academic poetry terms: narrative poetry tells a story and lyric poetry presents a series of ideas and asks the reader to make the association among them. Today, we’re going full on lyric, with a focused eye on imagery.
Surely you’ve heard of imagery in your English classes, but just to refresh your memory imagery is poetic description using the five senses. Writers use imagery when they want to make a particular place or object (or person or animal or anything out there in the real world) come to life.
We’ve got classic examples of imagery from the English canon to show you how particular writers used the tool. William Butler Yeats is a bit of a poet’s poet—he’s just so darn good with his form that often readers don’t realize what he’s doing unless they’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to write with rhyme and meter. Here he paints a loving portrait of his personal utopia, describing it with such loving detail that anyone would want to live there. As you read, take note especially of the sounds and colors Yeats calls up.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening’s full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Oh, that “bee-loud glade” hits me in the heart every time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Bishop uses imagery to reanimate a dead fish. No romanticized vision of utopia here. Bishop’s goal is not to find beauty in the beautiful, but beauty in the hard-won victories of an ugly fish. See how ugly and how beautiful she renders the fish she caught in the excerpt below. And then go read the whole poem here.
from The Fish
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
strained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygene
o—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
Now it’s your turn. First think of a subject: what do you want to bring to life for your readers? Describe it using every sense in the imagery arsenal. Here’s a handy-dandy brainstorming sheet for generating sensory details about your subject. After you’ve got the details down, ask yourself “So what?” In other words, when you choose and order your images, consider the emotions and the greater significance you want your reader to take away from the poem. For Yeats, those emotions were calm and peace and quiet pleasure. For Bishop, the significance of her fish is that life persists, even when it’s ugly and seemingly impossible.
And that does it, folks. Today was the last day of NaPoWriMo. How did you do? We think we did pretty well ourselves. Thanks for playing along with us.