Imagery in Poetry: Definition, Examples & Types

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Angela Gentry

Explore imagery in poetry, the primary vehicle poets use to transport their readers to a new experience. Learn about different types of imagery through examples and a quiz.

We also recommend watching Symbolism & Imagery in Literature: Definitions & Examples and What Is Free Verse Poetry? - Examples & Definition

Definition

Let's consider this sentence: 'The strawberries were blood-red with ripeness and almost scraped the ground on a long line of wild bushes.' What picture do you see in your mind when you read this? You probably imagined the deep color of the ripe strawberries, the warmth of the summer sun, and perhaps the feeling of the grainy smoothness of the fruit. Imagery in poetry creates similar snapshots in a reader's mind.

Poets use imagery to draw readers into a sensory experience. Images will often provide us with mental snapshots that appeal to our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

Five Senses

Imagery can either expose us to new experiences or reveal our own experiences in a new light. Because most poems are brief, a poet has the challenge of creating an entire world for the reader in a few short lines, and images or even the story that arises from a series of images, is the most efficient route to this communication.

Examples

Because imagery is so foundational to poetry, the canon of literature is chock full of excellent examples. A master of images, poet Sylvia Plath, revolutionized the poetry world with works like 'Daddy,' where she utilizes harsh Holocaust imagery to dissect her feelings toward her father. Let's take a look at an excerpt:

?Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.

Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do?

In this particular excerpt, we can see how individual images provide us with that snapshot - 'the boot in the face' and 'you stand at the blackboard, daddy' are examples of visual images. We can see the boot. We can see the blackboard. However, when we read this series of images together, we gain horrifying emotional impressions of oppression, neglect, and spite.

Taken one at a time, Plath's images do conjure up specific snapshots in our minds. However, when taken together, we see that Plath is actually talking about her father, Adolf Hitler, and men in her life in general. When a poet represents several experiences with a series of images or one poem, we call it conflation.

Let's look at the imagery in the poem 'Wild Geese' by Mary Oliver for another example:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Completely opposite in tone from Plath's 'Daddy,' 'Wild Geese' is a quiet poem that explores a human's relationship with nature and our similarities to an animal. While most of these images give us a visual experience, 'clear pebbles of the rain' is a description we can use our sense of sound to imagine.

Rain pebbles

As you can see, imagery in a poem is the dynamic that determines our experience in reading. We can lash out in anger with Plath over her father and the deep injustice of the Holocaust against the Jews, or we can sit quietly with Oliver and sense how vast the world really is.

Types

Poets use imagery to accomplish different ends; therefore, there are three main types of imagery: literal, perceptual, and conceptual.

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