7 Tips to Help You Create Hard-Hitting Imagery in Your Poetry
written by THEA Voutiritsas
Vivid imagery is the lifeblood of hard-hitting poetry. It’s not always easy to conjure concrete images out of emotional ether, but as writers, that’s exactly what we aim to do. Strong imagery grounds our thoughts, bringing complex emotions within reach of our readers. Strong imagery is an opportunity be understood. So, how do we create strong imagery in poetry? While there’s no one-size-fits-all formula to imagery, there are a few good tips we can all use to create better imagery in our poetry.
1. Show, don’t tell.
This is probably the oldest rule in the writer’s handbook. Though it’s usually used for prose writers, show, don’t tell is important for us to use in poetry as well. But what does it mean? Well, it means to use sensory descriptions to help readers experience what you’d like to say, rather than just flatly saying it.
For example, in “Loss” in Neon Soul, poet Alex Elle writes, “the question is as hard as / swallowing rocks…” This smart simile gives a physical comparison to emotional distress, making it as powerful as it is easy to understand. Imagine if Elle simply wrote “The question was hard to swallow.” Not nearly as interesting.
2. Break it up.
Bite-size snippets of imagery are enjoyable to read and easy to follow. Break up an idea into smaller pieces and find an image to describe each one. When you go to a park, you don’t see the entire park at once. Perhaps you see a swing set first, then a slide. Then you see children playing; you see their faces. Then you might look up and notice the trees—how the sun peeks between the leaves and the wind jostles them around. You get the picture.
Spend time painting a scene, moving from image to image to help place the reader in your shoes. Breaking up the imagery in poetry bit by bit is kind of like holding your reader’s hand and guiding them through your story.
3. Appeal to the senses.
Sure, it’s called imagery, but images aren’t the only way we experience the world. Injecting vivid descriptions of sounds, smells, touches, and even tastes can help the reader better understand what you’re thinking. An easy example of this is the phrase “emotional gut-punch.” While not everyone has been punched in the gut, most of us can imagine what it might feel like.
We can also use that idea to compare it to a time we’ve been hurt emotionally and how it literally created a sort of sour, painful feeling in the stomach. That’s the gut-punch. Don’t be afraid to explore senses other than sight to help you create imagery in poetry.
4. Use active voice.
Make the imagery in your poetry more vibrant by using active voice. To sum it up, active voice is when the subject performs the action of the sentence. An easy way to make your imagery more active is to personify it. For example, in “The Night is a Tunnel,” in I Wrote This For You, poet Iain S. Thomas writes, “I have told the sky all my loneliest thoughts of you. And all it does is shine starlight back at me…”
By making the sky the subject of the second sentence and giving it the agency to shine starlight back at the narrator, Thomas implies just how vast the sky is and how small he feels in comparison.
5. Be specific.
Creating strong imagery in poetry often requires that we narrow our focus. Naming specific objects and images will help the reader quickly locate the feeling, idea, or memory in their mind that you’re trying to convey.
For example, in “Best Man” from Today Means Amen, poet Sierra Demulder explains that her father wears his suit “as naturally as a cardboard box.” A simple simile indeed, it’s almost too specific to misinterpret—which is perfect. Most readers wouldn’t imagine a cardboard box as something comfortable to wear, which immediately helps us understand just how stiff her father feels in a suit.
6. Be unexpected.
Don’t be afraid to choose unexpected word combinations and comparisons to help you make your point. Sometimes the strongest images in poetry are the words we do not expect to read. For example, in Songs With Our Eyes Closed, poet Tyler Kent White writes, “Do not listen to them. Their mouths are full of turpentine & cyanide.”
Obviously, no one’s mouth is literally full of turpentine and cyanide. But those substances are pungent poisons that represent just how toxic negative thoughts and people can be. Smartly, White is giving a grounded, physical representation to help us truly feel a complex emotion.
7. Stay relevant.
Imagery in poetry really means nothing if it isn’t relevant. It’s easy to get carried away with vivid language and forget about your central theme. Be sure not to go off the deep end with your imagery. Keep it attached to what you’re actually trying to say. Check back in with the original meaning of the poem as you write.
For example, if you’re working on a piece about love, you may describe images of warmth and comfort. But don’t get lost in describing the smell of a campfire without bringing it back to the crux of the matter. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Remember, though, that these are tips, not rules. In the end, the task of creating beautiful imagery in poetry should give you more freedom. Don’t worry about whether you’re making a metaphor or simile correctly, just focus on whether it feels true. Push the limits of language and imagination to create something truly unique. Spinning imagery is an opportunity for readers to combine snapshots of their own experiences to better understand you, so be yourself as you write and trust that on your own experiences can create a strong poem.