Imagery in Poetry: Definition, Examples & Types
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Poets use imagery to accomplish different ends; therefore, there are three main types of imagery: literal, perceptual, and conceptual.
Literal imagery is when we should take the snapshot in our minds at face value. We see this straightforward intention in the first stanza of John Updike's poem, 'A Dog's Death':
She must have been kicked unseen
or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was
beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the
And to win, wetting there, the words,
'Good dog! Good dog!'…
Perceptual imagery often capitalizes on the five senses for effect and draws on techniques, such as metaphor, simile, and symbolism. Perceptual imagery conjures a strong snapshot in our minds, but its main purpose is to represent a certain reality or emotion. At the conclusion of Yusef Komunyakaa's poem, 'Reminescence,' we see an example of metaphor:
…I've seen overturned deathcarts
with their wheels churning
but your face will always be
a private country.
Komunyakaa compares his lover's face to a private country; it's a metaphor for a secret vastness of memory for someone he still loves. As you can see, we do not take this country to be literal; it is instead perceptual because we know the private country is in his imagination.
Conceptual imagery represents an entire idea. In Emily Dickinson's 'Because I Could Not Stop for Death,' the speaker exits this life with Death in a carriage:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility…
It is possible for the categories of literal, perceptual, and conceptual imagery to overlap. With so many different combinations of mental snapshots and emotional connections, it's no wonder that so many poets create a long-lasting and meaningful experience for the reader.
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