Imagery is the use of words to describe a sensory experience. There are five main types of imagery in poems, each representing one of the five senses -- sight, touch, sound, taste and smell. The website Friends of Robert Frost identifies two other senses. Organic imagery communicates internal sensations, such as hunger or fear, and kinesthetic imagery indicates movement. Imagery is one technique poets use to paint a picture in a reader’s mind.
Seeing Through the Mind's Eye
Visual imagery appeals to the sense of sight by describing something the speaker of the poem sees. Poets will use other figurative language, such as metaphor, simile or personification to describe these images. May Swenson’s poem “Water Picture” uses visual imagery throughout the poem, including the lines, “Long buildings hang and wiggle gently,” and “The arched stone bridge is an eye, with underlid / in the water.” Rather than merely saying she sees reflection in the water, the speaker of the poem describes what objects she sees and how the water distorts them or makes them seem like something else.
Hearing Words on the Page
Poets can also describe sounds that are heard, which is called auditory imagery. John Keats ends his poem “To Autumn” with auditory imagery: “Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft / The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft, / And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” Poets might also use sound devices like onomatopoeia, or words that imitate sounds, as a means of describing sounds.
Feeling Sensations Through Words
Describing the way something feels is called tactile imagery. This type of imagery might define characteristics like hardness, softness, wetness, heat or cold, according to Friends of Robert Frost. The line “And kneeled and made the cheerless grate / Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;” in Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” uses tactile imagery to describe the warmth of the cottage.
Imagining Foods and Flavors
Imagery describing taste sensations is also referred to as gustatory imagery. Poets appeal to this sense by explaining what something tastes like, which can be particularly effective if the description is something the reader is familiar with. In his poem “Romance Sonambulo,” Federico Garcia Lorca writes, “The stiff wind left / in their mouths, a strange taste / of bile, of mint, and of basil.” This taste profile correlates with Garcia Lorca’s frequent mention of the color green throughout the poem.
Recalling Favorite or Foul Scents
Poets can also appeal to the sense of smell through the use of olfactory imagery. H.W. Longfellow writes, “They silently inhale / the clover-scented gale, / And the vapors that arise / From the well-watered and smoking soil” in his poem “Rain in Summer.” These words paint a clear picture in the reader’s mind about smells the speaker experiences after rainfall.
Sensing Internal Emotions
According to Friends of Robert Frost, organic imagery describes internal sensations, or things the speaker of the poem feels. These feelings could be emotions such as love or despair, or they could be sensations like hunger or thirst. In Frost's poem “Birches,” he describes feelings of fatigue and aimlessness in the line, “It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood.”
Perceiving Motion and Energy
Kinesthetic imagery describes the sense of movement, and it could refer to the movement of the speaker or objects around the speaker of the poem. W.B. Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan” begins with kinesthetic imagery: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the staggering girl.” In this line, the reader sees the movement of a bird’s wings and the disorientation of a girl.