Archive of Articles about Writing

The challenges of imagery in your poetry

People will remember an image long after they’ve forgotten why it was there.

That one perfect line in a thirty line poem may be what makes it all worthwhile, or it may be what makes the rest of the poem bad. Keep an eye on it.

These two tips reflect both the power of vivid imagery and the problems images can present. A perfectly formed image can be inspiring, devastating, funny, melancholy, dramatic, or subtle. For me, one of the great joys of reading poetry is experiencing the vivid writing poets produce. This image from a Tony Hoagland poem, Here in Berkley, has stayed with me since I first read it.

Close your eyes,
swing a baguette horizontally
you’ll hit someone with a Ph.D.

The image sticks, probably because it is funny and sardonic and demonstrates a distinct view of a distinct community. The image the way I remember it, however, is incomplete. The full sentence is:

Close your eyes,
swing a baguette horizontally
you’ll hit someone with a Ph.D.
in sensitivity,
someone who,
if not a therapist himself,
will offer you the number of his therapist,

which — it may take you years
to figure out — is a hostile act on his part
designed to send you on a wild-goose chase
through the orchard of your childhood
to fetch the tarnished apple of your mother’s love.

Now, the short image is what sticks with me, but the overall sentence tells a somewhat different story. It is a much fuller and more melancholy image than the short version, and it describes more than just Berkeley.

No matter how well you write, most people will take away only bits and pieces of your poems. There are very few readers who memorize or even understand a poem in its entirety. If you are lucky enough to have your poem remembered at all, chances are that only one element of your poem will sink in with your reader. That element may not mean to them what it means to you.

When you write a poem, it is easy to fall in love with your own words. It feels fantastic to create a well-written line or to find a single perfect word. There are so many times when writing is a struggle, that the moments of success must be cherished.

The danger, however, is that your perfect line may not belong. Great words and even great lines do not automatically create great poems. When you edit your poetry, look hard at the lines you are most proud of.

Ask yourself if the best lines fit smoothly into the rest of the poem. Do they match the tone and intention of the rest of the poem? Do they add to the rest of the poem, or stand apart from it? What will the reader remember? Does it match what your intentions are? Read the poem without the lines you love the most. Compare the two versions to see which one comes closest to achieving your goals.

Chances are, those perfect lines belong right where they are. If not, the problem may be the line, or it may be the poem. If the rest of the poem does not live up to the best of your poem, then perhaps you need to rewrite the other lines.