Seamus Cooney, Department of English

Notes on Imagery

1: Explicit Imagery

Go to Implicit Imagery or a page of basic definitions of metaphor and simile.

"The image is the thing named" -- "what the words actually name."
Hugh Kenner
Consider that word thing for a moment: the emphasis is put on tangible, concrete objects -- things you can see or hear or touch. Language is, at root, concrete, and to grasp imagery well you will need to cut through the fog of abstractions and generalities that fill our minds and mentally seize hard particulars.

Seizing the explicit image

Given Kenner's definition, your first requirement is to get clear in your mind (image -ination) the specifics of the thing being named in the poem. Often this is completely explicit:

Example 1:

In me thou seest the dying of such fire
As on the ashes of his youth doth lie . . .
Shakespeare, Sonnet 73: "That time of year . . ."
There, all we need do is realize (that is, make real to our imagination) the thing being evoked (a fire -- an open fire, obviously, and probably a wood fire, since it produces lots of ashes) and let it resonate in its relation to the other "thing" present -- "me" -- and feel what that resonating produces in the way of thought and (especially) feeling. Age, weariness, exhaustion -- but not, note, complete extinction. And there's even a sort of comforting memory that once there was a more powerful fire than there is now.

Example 2:

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Sylvia Plath, "Morning Song"
The "fat gold watch" here is a quite explicit image (a simile). It surprises by employing an unexpected adjective, one usually associated with people (so that "fat" here is a metaphor). We see an old-fashioned pocket watch and carry its associations of preciousness and a rather mysterious kind of autonomous life over to the mother's attitude to her baby.

The next complex image (not the next image, strictly speaking, since "midwife" and "footsoles" also name things, but quite directly, not figuratively), "bald cry," makes a similar conjoining of elements, but it is a more implicit and much less "realized" image that appeals not only to the visual imagination but to also the auditory. (It's a metaphor -- a personification.)

Example 3:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
William Carlos Williams
This little poem consists of almost nothing but the one image -- the plums. (Two, I guess, if you count the icebox.) They are evoked not through sight but through taste and temperature, but they certainly are something concretely and explicitly named.

The mere naming of them isn't enough to make the poem interesting, of course. It's the tricky and slyly humorous tone (boast? apology? provocation?) that does that, plus the strange and wonderful effect of transmuting those ephemeral plums in the Williams family refrigerator into something permanent to the imagination.

  • Go to Part 2: implicit imagery
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