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What Does Suggestive Imagery Mean in a Poem?


Images in poetry often suggest more than their literal meaning. All imagery is to some degree suggestive -- whether through associations, sounds or symbolism. “Suggestive imagery” in poetry means imagery that is particularly suggestive -- images that use the suggestive properties of language to particularly powerful effect.

Intellectual and Emotional

Imagery refers to the sensory details in a poem -- anything you can see, hear, taste, smell or touch. Moreover, according to the poet Ezra Pound, “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In other words, all poetic imagery has something suggestive about it -- imagery does not simply present the form of a thing, but also emotions that go along with that form.

Connotation

An image has both denotative and connotative meanings. An image’s denotative meaning is its literal or dictionary definition. For example, consider the image “the steady ticking of the clock.” The denotative or literal meaning of this image is just what it says: a slight, regular sound made by a clock. An image’s connotations are the ideas that people associate with that image, which the image suggests. The ticking of a clock has connotations of time passing, mortality and, depending on the context, boredom.

Symbolism

An image may function within a poem as a symbol of a larger or more abstract idea. Whereas all images have connotative meaning, or associations, not all images are symbols. A symbol is an image that stands for something in particular beyond itself. Common symbols in American culture include the U.S. flag as a symbol for freedom, or a white wedding dress as a symbol for purity. Symbols can also be created within the context of a specific poem. The albatross, which had previously been a symbol of good fortune, becomes a symbol for guilt and subsequent bad fortune in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Sound

Images can also suggest meaning through the sounds of the words used to convey them. The poet Richard Hugo notes that single-syllable words tend to suggest ideas of “rigidity, honesty, toughness, relentlessness, the world of harm unvarnished,” whereas multisyllabic words often suggest “compassion, tenderness, and tranquility.” The image of a “straight-backed chair,” with its short, mostly single-syllable words and hard consonant sounds, suggests the idea of hardness, even though the word “hard” isn’t present.

About the Author

Based in Chicago, Adam Jefferys has been writing since 2007. He teaches college writing and literature, and has tutored students in ESL. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, and is currently completing a PhD in English Studies.

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