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The Statue of Liberty is an image. Not pictures of the statue. The actual figure on its pedestal on an island. It shows up in every movie about European immigrants to the US who come on ships.

Why do I say it's an image? It's mimetic. That is, an artificial imitation of reality. The statue represents a woman in flowing robes holding up a torch. You've got the folds and billows in her dress. You've got the crown with the little tourist windows. You've got the shiny surface on the flame to reflect light as if it were flame.

Of course, we don't confuse the statue with a real woman. Because women are only sometimes that tall, usually in 1950s black-and-white sci-fi B movies obsessed with radiation mutation.

An image in a poem is much the same thing. A linguistic imitation of reality. Here's a famous poem by Ezra Pound, called "In a Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. 
The second line of this brief poem is all image. We can imagine, we can see in our mind's eye the flower's stark contrast with the branch. Perhaps it has grown there. Perhaps it was blown there by the storm. All of these add to the ambience (and meaning) of the poem.

Images are always sensory. They are sometimes sensual (if done right). They ground the poem's themes and ideas in real things. Wallace Stevens said, "Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself." William Carlos Williams said, "No ideas but in things."

While we're talking about Williams, here's his famous poem "The Red Wheelbarrow":

so much depends

the red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
Except for the first stanza, that's nothing but image. Nothing but image. Williams and Pound and other influential poets of their time joined together in a movement called Imagism. The Imagists argued for the primacy of image in poetry.

To be really practical, what images can do in your poem is draw the reader in. By sharing your own perception and articulation of the sensory and sensual, you invite the reader to perceive too. The reader connects with you because of course she is also an image maker. All of us are, in our heads.

Remember, images may involve smells, tastes, tactile sensations, sounds heard, and not only things seen.

Another thing to remember about imagery is that the image needs to be particular and specific. Don't just say tree; say aspen or oak or banyan. Don't just say bird, say toucan. When you say toucan, you actually help to set the scene because toucans live only in jungle (or zoos, unfortunately). Of course you might also be referring to cereal boxes. In any case, be clear, be specific, be detailed.

Detail. Detail. Detail. Detail. Detail.

That's the image mantra (in trochaic pentameter).

When you are vague and general, you don't give the reader enough cues and clues. If you are specific, she will tune in better.

If you describe something fully and memorably, the reader will imagine your image but she will also remember something similar from her own experience, and that will enliven her mind's version of your image.

If you describe something vaguely and forgettably, with the intent that the reader be given the freedom to imagine as she will, that memory spark won't fire and instead you'll have mush, both on the page and in the reader's mind.

The reader will turn from your poem.

Now something else, a related topic: simile, metaphor, and symbol.

Here's a sentence: "Her umbrella was like a zebra." What does that make you think of? Well, maybe the canopy of this umbrella is striped black and white in that swooshing zebra way. Of course, that's a simile. Note the word like. That word ties together the two ideas (umbrella and zebra) and demands that we see them as somehow interlinked.

Here's another sentence: "Her umbrella was a zebra." Better yet, "In the downpour, her umbrella was a zebra leaping among its black and tan sisters in the town square." I've tweaked the sentence to dramatize how this metaphor (note: no like) makes us see the umbrella as a zebra. And the kicker is the image: "leaping among ... black and tan."

Before we go further, let me give you some terms: the vehicle is the word or phrase which carries the "secret" meaning (in this case, "umbrella"); the tenor is the meaning (hence, "zebra leaping").

Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" is metaphoric. The qualities of the faces and the petals are transferred back and forth to each other.

Now on to symbol. Let's go back to the Statue of Liberty. Yes, it's an image. If you write about the statue in a poem, that would be an image too. But the Statue is also a symbol -- in other words a metaphor whose tenor is something large and collective. The statue is the vehicle and it signals to Americans this tenor: our pride in the U.S. affording shelter and freedom to the oppressed and unwanted. That's a public symbol.

In poetry, we find public symbols too (the flag, the cross, the Star of David), but there are also private symbols -- those which mean worlds to the poet and which are intended to mean worlds (though maybe other ones) to the reader.

But no matter whether public or private symbol, whether metaphor or simile, the basic element -- the image -- won't work unless you invest it with electricity, with lightning. The image has got to crackle and it does that only if you use vivid, specific, and appropriate detail.

One poetic form which relies on this dictum is the haiku. "In a Station of the Metro" is, in Pound's own words, "haiku-like."

The haiku is a Japanese form which, in English, has three lines composed of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables. It is always based on a single image. The haiku poet typically evokes a single season, say "spring" or "winter," and the details often focus on nature, at least in traditional examples.

The punchline is this: the reader is supposed to experience a kind of epiphany from the haiku. As Emily Dickinson said, "I know it is poetry if I feel as if the top of my head has come off." To use 60's slang, the haiku blows your mind! Through its intense compression and compactness, the haiku liberates the mind into larger meaning.

Here's an example of a Japanese haiku from the 1700s, by Taniguchi Buson:

The piercing chill I feel:
    my dead wife's comb, in our bedroom,
        under my heel . . . 
I'll let you work out your own response to this, but let me say that it seems to me the haiku alludes to winter, pain, death, and fear of ghosts, but more importantly to love, sorrow, and transcendence over death. What do you think? Pretty cool stuff. And it all depends on image: "piercing" and "under my heel." That last phrase is sensory, connecting with the tactile. Ouch.

There's a TV ad which says, "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything." Poetry is completely opposite: image is everything.

-- Vince Gotera

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Last Updated 8/23/99