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Imagery in poetry generally functions as the poem’s backbone or grounding rod because images are used to evoke a reader’s gut-level response. Image and imagery have many different connotations and meanings, but for the poet they convey a complete human experience in very few words. Not necessarily always a mental picture, imagery in poetry can speak to any of the five senses and is typically conveyed by figurative language.
The study of any poem often begins with its imagery. As a general term, imagery is the use of language to represent actions, feelings, and other sensory and extra-sensory experiences. Poet Tony Hoagland describes poetry as works of many levels. The rhetorical level encompasses the purely intellectual material, while diction is where the voice of the poet emerges. For Hoagland, the image is the concrete, or gut-level, part of the poem that feels the most real to the reader.
American poet and critic Ezra Pound once described a poetic image as something that captures an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time. Imagery puts into words what humans experience emotionally, intellectually, and concretely in any given moment. The moment becomes frozen in words, allowing the reader to dwell in and re-experience it every time he or she reads the poem.
The words used to freeze an image are not a simple stand-in for an object; they communicate a full human experience on an intellectual, sensual, and emotional level. Capturing a moment of time is what makes imagery in poetry poignant, and the possibility of missing the experience gives the image power. The poet must freeze the image as completely as possible so that something fleeting in reality, like eating a piece of candy or seeing a shooting star, becomes a long-lasting experience that the reader can re-live again and again.
Once an image has been captured in writing, it can be seen as literal, perceptual, or conceptual. Literal imagery in poetry tends to set the scene, like looking at a photograph, and is concrete and representational. A perceptual image appeals to one of the five senses and is couched in a poetic device like a metaphor or symbol, for example describing a blackberry as having sweet flesh. A conceptual image like castle of God is difficult to visualize, but the reader may have an idea of what it is.
Poets typically convey imagery in their work by using figurative language and poetic devices such as metaphor, symbol, and metonymy. An image can appeal to the eye, taste, and touch. Images can also be abstract, appealing to the reader’s intellect, and kinaesthetic, or pertaining to bodily movement. In many cases, images overlap and combine; thus a kinesthetic image can also be visual or tactile.
Just prior to World War I, a group of poets who became known as imagists rose to prominence. Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Hilda Doolittle were prominent members. The imagists used everyday speech rather than relied on figurative language and believed that an accessible, clear, and direct image was crucial to poetic verse. This movement influenced imagery in poetry throughout the 20th century and can be seen in objectivist and Beat poems, among others.