Types of Imagery in Poetry

A tree is just a tree unless a writer utilizes poetic devices such as metaphor, simile and imagery. The tree may be a green umbrella or the lungs of the planet; its branches may be gnarled like the hands of an old crone or smooth and white as bone. It may whisper, rattle or bend. Through the use of imagery, a poet can evoke all the senses with descriptive language and submerge the reader into deeper levels of experience and understanding.

Visual and Auditory Imagery

Elementary students learn the five senses as sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch. Visual imagery refers to words that illicit something that can be seen in the mind’s eye. In Robert Frost's “After Apple Picking,” he writes, “magnified apples appear and disappear every fleck of russet showing clear.” In his poem, “Mowing,” Frost uses auditory, or sound, imagery: “the scythe whispering to the ground."

Taste, Smell and Touch

To evoke the sense of taste in his poem, Frost also uses gustatory imagery: “the walking boots that taste of Atlantic and Pacific salt.” In the poem, “To Earthward,” the experience of smell, or olfactory imagery, is offered: “musk from hidden grapevine springs.” The final of the five senses used in poetry is tactile, or touch. Poets can use words to invite us to feel damp, cold, rough or soft.

Movement and Inner Sensations

Organic imagery uses language to approximate any internal sensation, such as fear, hunger or thirst. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot transports the reader into an internal feeling of fatigue with the lines, "And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! 
Smoothed by long fingers,
 Asleep tired or it malingers, 
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.” William Wordsworth uses kinesthetic imagery, or the imagery of movement, in his poem, "Daffodils": "Tossing their heads in sprightly dance."

Figurative Language

While straight imagery is found in poems, poets often utilize imagery with figurative language, such as metaphor and simile. A metaphor compares the attributes of one experience or object with those of another by suggesting that the one thing is actually the other. Carl Sandburg uses metaphor in his famous poem, "Fog," when he wrote, "the fog comes on little cat feet." Even though the poem is about fog, through metaphor, the fog becomes creeping little cat feet, which elicits visual, tactile and kinesthetic imagery. A simile is similar to a metaphor in that it creates an affiliation between two distinct ideas, but a simile keeps the two ideas distinct, comparing the two items with the words "like," "as," or "then." A familiar example of simile is found in Robert Burns's poem, "A Red, Red Rose": "My love is like a red, red rose."

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