KEEP IT SIMPLE: CONCRETE IMAGERY IN POETRY

By Michael Mirolla

1. Poetic emotion: You can’t just slap it together, pardner

Poetry is about making a lasting impression with words. Too often, however, the main impression that poetry makes on students is that it is little more than a gushing out of personal emotions; a haphazard explosion of feelings that scatters words across a page (or, more and more, on a computer monitor). While that may be true to the extent that poetry is meant to arouse an emotional reaction, coming from the gut, as it were, it doesn’t explain why one poem is more effective than another in creating this arousal. More importantly, it doesn’t explain why one poem rises beyond that first emotional arousal to create a more lasting impression.

So how does one explain the difference between an effective poem and one that fails to “grab” the reader or listener? One answer: The strength and effectiveness of a poem relies on the strength and effectiveness of its imagery – and the strength and effectiveness of that imagery relies on its concreteness. In fact, real imagery can’t help but be concrete. As defined on the VolWeb Project site of The University of Tennessee, imagery “is the use of vivid description, usually rich in sensory words, to create pictures, or images, in the reader’s mind.” Call it a form of communication that uses words to create pictures. However, even that definition lacks one important element – and that’s the avoidance of clichéd descriptions.

2. Show, don’t tell

Perhaps, the best thing to do is to give a couple of examples of what is meant by these two elements in a poem: the concreteness of the images and their uniqueness, the thing that makes them striking and memorable. Below are two poems, one of which uses concrete imagery to get its emotional message across, while the other makes use of more abstract words and phrases. The poem on the left is complete; the one on the right is only a fragment of the original. One would argue that both deserve the “poem” label, right? I mean, they both have irregular line breaks and the one on the right even has a rhyming scheme. But do they both really deserve to be placed on the same poetic pedestal? If not, why not? Ok, if you bear with me a while, I’ll actually analyze the poems. I know, I know. Not done these days of citizen journalists and poetic outpourings of the heart on Internet sites. But, just for fun, let’s take a look at what distinguishes one from the other.

Life

Night
in a pharmacy
a kneeling
horse
eats
the floor boards
a girl
with a strange
green
burn
is receiving first aid
while
the ghost
in despair
weeps
in the corner

(Miltos Sahtouris)

Feelings of Abandonment

I keep looking for comfort from you
?I sit and wonder if your love is true?
You see me crying
?Inside you have to know I’m dying
?Don’t you see these tears?
Don’t you see the hurt from so many years??
The hurt, the pain and anger won’t go away
?I wonder who “loves me” and will turn their back today
?I can’t explain how I feel inside?
Feelings of abandonment rush in like the tide
?Ghosts haunt me no matter where I go?
I do love you still, that you should know?
The adult lives her life?
Taking on happiness, sorrow and strife?I
hope someday you’ll understand
?Someday I hope you’ll be here to comfort me and hold my hand?

(Angela Fernatt)

3. Life’s like that

If one examines the images used in “Life,” it’s not hard to conclude that they are both very concrete and unusual. They are also extremely vivid and leave an impression on anyone reading them. The one thing you can’t accuse them of being is clichéd or run of the mill. The closest they come to something abstract is the use of the word “ghost” but that is quickly corrected with the indelible image of that particular ghost as it “in despair/weeps/in the corner.”
In “Feelings of Abandonment,” that concreteness and uniqueness is lacking for the most part, even though the writer uses several words that are similar to those in “Life”. A good example is “ghost” as in: “Ghosts haunt me no matter where I go.” This has little of the visual and aural impact of the ghost in “Life”, none of its immediateness. In fact, these “ghosts” have a worn-out and clichéd feel to them; they no longer create vividness in the reader. To put it another way, abstract words such as these (and even more so “comfort,” “hurt,” “pain,” “anger,” “abandonment,” “happiness,” “sorrow,” “strife”) make the audience do all the work and act as mere placeholders for the reader’s own memories rather than create new ones out of the poem. In other words, they have little meaning on their own and are pretty much interchangeable.

Add on phrases that have lost much of their meaning and impact from overuse – “if your love is true,” “turn their back,” “rush in like the tide,” “hold my hand” – and the divide between the two poems becomes deeper and wider. Thus, what started out with “Feelings of Abandonment” seeming like the more substantial poem (at least in the number of emotions the poet attempts to express and its rhyming scheme) ends up with “Life” making a more profound statement in a very simple and effective way: through the indelible imagery the poet has chosen for it.

4. Life’s uniqueness

Let’s look more closely at “Life”. The poet sets the scene, placing us in a unique setting: “Night/in a pharmacy” carries with it both vividness and a sense of mystery/ illness/ things-not-quite-right. The next images are very specific and extremely visual (almost cinematic): horse, girl, ghost. Each is described in a clear-cut way that imprints the image on the reader’s mind, that burns it in.
At the same time, the poem gives off something more: a mystic, spiritual feel. It tells us that these images, in themselves so specifically delineated, represent a much larger group of images. They represent, in some way or other, “Life,” right? But how? How does that happen? Well, that’s the true poet’s trick. While presenting us with images that hold our attention almost the way a cobra or rattlesnake would, the poet manages to slide in a whole bunch of layers on top of the images. It’s almost as if the poet uses these concrete images as the foundation for a house that is not visible as part of the poem but which the reader can explore in search of meaning.

5. Cleaning Up The Image

There you have it, then: how individual, concrete, unique imagery can help to create a poem that remains in the reader’s imagination and that appears before them like a still from a movie. Who said modern poetry is too obscure for us to understand?

Brief Lesson Plan

This article is aimed at intermediate to senior level high school grades. The objective of the lesson plan is to answer the questions: “What is concrete imagery in poetry?” and “Why is it important to have concrete imagery in poetry?” The best way to convey the concept/theme is to perform the comparison of the two poems in the classroom rather than trying to answer those questions through the use of a poetry textbook. The teacher could use a combination of screen projections of the two poems and their pre-recorded or in-classroom recital.
In the projected versions of the poems (using a laptop with the ability to project the text onto a screen at the front of the classroom), the various key words reflecting concrete imagery or the lack thereof would be pointed out through various methods depending on the sophistication of the projections and the ability of the teacher to manipulate the technology. There could be a system of colour-coding, for instance, of the words that reflect concrete images versus those that are abstract or have been over-used to the point of becoming clichés. This could be done with any number of poems. Or the words reflecting concrete/abstract images could be left for the students to identify, depending on the level of the class and where they are in their study of poetry and poetic language.

In the pre-recorded versions of the two poems (or any other comparable poems the teacher feels are appropriate and clear-cut in the differences between concrete images and overly-abstract ones), the students could be made to “digest” the poems and then indicate which images work for them and which do not. The teacher could use this as a starting point for a discussion on concrete imagery in poetry and its effectiveness, while allowing the students to work things out for themselves in an ensuing discussion.

A third approach would be to divide the classroom into two and then a student from one group recite one poem and a student from the other group recite the other poem. With the teacher leading the way, it would be up to each group to defend their poem in terms of its effectiveness as reflected in the imagery used.

All of these approaches could be made to work because they are interactive and do not require extensive textbook material.

Additional Material

1. Other strongly concrete image poems that could be used for comparison purposes

For a haunting poem that combines extremely specific images with what we might call the inverse of life, try “The Worker,” by Richard W. Thomas (Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Black Classic Press, 2007):
My father lies black and hushed
Beneath white hospital sheets
He collapsed at work
His iron left him
Slow and quiet he sank

Meeting the wet concrete floor on his way
The wheels were still turning—they couldn’t stop
Red and yellow lights flashing
Gloved hands twisting knobs—they couldn’t stop
And as they carried him out
The whirring and buzzing and humming machines
Applauded him
Lapping up his dripping iron
They couldn’t stop

Or this unpublished love poem written by yours truly:
Poem Found (Or Industrialized Love)

I choose you … amid 35% profit organizations
I choose the sight of you
in a house rebuilt by trembling hands
your face in every window
a high bitter wind seals my eyes

I choose you … between corporate structures
I choose the sound of you
in a cemetery of sputtering motors … wheels …
sewing machines … frenzied steel … a million blacksmiths
hammering … hammering
I choose the sound of you … the breath
of a flower humming nearby … the eyeless wind
no longer taking me
a misshaped pounding shatters my ears

I choose you … in a field of poisoned corn-husks
the crippled land grandfather plowed
I choose the touch of you … blindness
converting me to unmortal man
I choose the touch of you
power saws lop off my hands

I choose you … blind … deaf … stumped …
unable to touch your silence
I choose the sense of you
a junkyard body freezes to rust

You choose me … lips spark
in an arc-weld rainbow
you choose me … your kiss
cutting me adrift … my head
floats out to space like a fugue balloon

Or “Hunter’s Song”, a traditional African poem from the collection A Crocodile Has Me by the Leg, L.W. Doob (Ed.) (New York: Walker & Co., 1967):
In the bush, in the deep forest,
We do our work;
One hunter digs a hole,
The other sets a trap.
We divide the meat with our followers,
Another part we cut in pieces
And dry over the fire.
We all die in the same way;
And so, hunters, let us be good comrades.

Or William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1962):

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

2. Online Poetry Instruction Sites

Imagery: http://volweb.utk.edu/Schools/bedford/harrisms/imagery.htm” http://volweb.utk.edu/Schools/bedford/harrisms/imagery.htm
Poetrymagic.co.uk: http://www.poetrymagic.co.uk/imagery.html” http://www.poetrymagic.co.uk/imagery.html
Figurative Language: http://42explore.com/figlang.htm” http://42explore.com/figlang.htm
Introducing Metaphors: http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=605″ http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=605
Online Poetry Classroom: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/6″ http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/6
Making Poetry Exciting for Highschoolers: http://high-school-culture.suite101.com/article.cfm/teaching_poetry” http://high-school-culture.suite101.com/article.cfm/teaching_poetry

3. Teaching Poetry in High School Print Resources

Teaching Poetry in High School (A.B. Somers), National Council of Teachers, 1999.
Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises (S. Dunning & W. Stafford), National Council of Teachers, 1992.
The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach (R. Behn & C. Twitchell), Harper Perennial, 1992.
Writing Poems (R. Wallace & M. Boisseau), Little, Brown and Company, 1996
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (M. Stroud & E. Boland), W.W. Norton, 2000.
An Introduction to Poetry (X.J. Kennedy & D. Gioia), Longman, 1998.
Poetry in English: An Introduction (C. Barber), Macmillan, 1993.

Calling himself a Toronto-Montreal corridor writer (for the amount of travel between those cities), Michael Mirolla is the author of the 2009 Indie Award-nominated novel, Berlin, two short story collections (The Formal Logic of Emotion and Hothouse Loves & Other Tales), and two poetry collections, Light And Time and the English-Italian bilingual Interstellar Distances/Distanze Interstellari.

  • Thank you for writing such a detailed article, written in a way which is accessible to all poets no matter how experienced or knowledgeable they are. I have shared it with my peers at the Forage Poetry Forum as I think it is a valuable resource for all.