When writing poetry, students need to remember that poetic imagery isn't limited to descriptions of visual images. It relies on the senses of smell, sound, taste, touch and emotion as well as sight. A powerful poem usually contains figurative language and symbolic comparisons such as metaphors and similes. Rhythm -- the way a poem flows, lurches, marches, skips or waltzes -- also contributes to the picture in the reader's mind. Evoking the senses creates powerful imagery and powerful poetry.
The Five Senses and Figurative Language
Figurative language is a way to use the senses to create an image in the reader's mind -- particularly comparisons like metaphors and similes. Metaphors are indirect comparisons between two things. For example, in saying that "Shakespeare was a gem," you would be suggesting that the playwright has at least one quality of a gemstone, such as rarity or preciousness. Similes are comparisons that are more direct, using words such as "like" and "as." In "Sonnet 147," Shakespeare relies on the simile "My love is as a fever" to create an image of a person who is so lovesick that he feels ill. Symbolism and personification are other kinds of figurative language that also provide comparisons appealing to the senses.
Sight, Sound and Symbolism
Sight, sound and symbolism can all unite in a poem. Symbolism is when one thing represents another. In "The Possibility" by British writer James Fenton, the unhappy narrator is symbolized by a lizard that won't move until it hears the cries of jay birds suddenly "swearing in the wood" nearby. The poet uses the sound to create a feeling of menace in the poem and to suggest a sense of unease in his own life. He then sends the lizard fleeing, which creates a feeling of movement and foreshadows the shift in the emotion of the text from depression to anger.
Taste and Smell
A pleasant taste mentioned in a poem may cause readers to connect with equally pleasant memories about that taste. Ripe strawberries represent the sweetness of life in Rabbi Rachel Barenblat's poem "Taste." Barenblat describes a baby enjoying one of her first foods -- puréed strawberries. When the author metaphorically compares the child's mouth to "a door to the wide world waiting to be brought inside," she is using the door and taste to symbolize happy discovery.
Theodore Roethke's poem "Child on Top of a Greenhouse" is only one stanza, but it effectively conveys images of danger and exhilaration through touch. For example, the reader can almost feel the wind billowing against the child and the "splinters of glass and dried putty" crackling under his feet as he stands atop a greenhouse. The poet further intensifies the feeling of the wind's wildness by connecting it's movement to the running of animals. The child sees the elm trees swaying in the wind as "plunging and tossing like horses."
Rhythm is the beat that is heard or felt when reading a poem. It is a part of the form of the poem that also helps to set the tone for its content. Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Bells" is about the sounds and feelings related to the sounds of bells that are heard throughout life, ranging from sleigh rides to funerals. The rhythm is fast and light at first when the poem's images are cheerful and the sleigh bells "tinkle, tinkle, tinkle." But by the end, the rhythm slows as "solemn" bells "groan" and are "tolling, tolling, tolling" for the dead.