How to Handle Imagery in a Poem or Passage

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

Imagery is one of the elements of poetry. The others are diction, rhythm and sound. Imagery refers to the comparison of what is known (a description of an object or action) with something to be communicated (either a situation or an emotional state).

Imagery works by means of analogy, that is, as if you were saying, ‘this is like that’. It is a broad term used in describing all the images, figures and pictures of the mind present in a poem or passage.

To describe the relationship between a writer’s ideas and the images chosen to concretize these ideas, we must first understand these basic terms – ‘vehicle’ and ‘tenor’. Tenor is the sum total of ideas and attitudes not only of the literary speaker or of the persona or of the voice or of the perspective but also of the author. Vehicle therefore, will be the details which bear the idea(s) and attitudes of the literary speaker and of the author. Very well known vehicles of imagery are similitude and metaphor. Others are synecdoche, metonymy and personification. For instance, if the idea or tenor we wish to communicate is skill or dexterity, we might use the metaphorical vehicle and say: He is the Ronaldinho of our school.

Imagery also deals with sense perceptions. These perceptions are based mostly on what is felt and experienced. There are olfactory (sense of smell), audio (of what is heard), visual (having to do with sight or seeing), kinetic (motion, movement), thermal (having to do with heat or cold), tactile (having to do with feeling or touch) and gustatory (having to do with taste). These senses relate to the pictures or figures of the mind. What this means is that there is a certain way the literary speaker deploys or places or paints his words on the canvass of your mind that immediately provokes a lasting effect. For instance, if we do a little peek-a-boo with David Rubadiri’s, ‘An African Thunderstorm’, that part where he said something about the wind blowing and the trees bending to let it pass. Now, the dominant image here, I think is kinetic because even though the poet seems to focus on the destructive power of an African thunderstorm, this effect can only be actualized if there is some motion, some movement. But it must also be emphasized that that poem is not all about the destructive power of the elements. There is something of the African community and how it responds to natural disasters.

So, for the A Level Literature-in-English student who wants to handle imagery in a Cambridge exam, he’d want to apply some of these precepts:

    • State the meaning of imagery and highlight some of the effects of imagery. The student should explain and attempt to interpret the various images prevalent in the work by drawing an analogy between these images and the theme(s) of the poem or passage.
    • The student should ask himself/herself these questions: are the images appropriate to the subject matter? Are the images derived from science, politics, business, and sports? If they are, he/she should say so. What this implies is that apart from the senses and other figures and pictures of speech, images are also derivable from other non-literary sources. But he/she should determine how relevant they are to the central idea or theme of the work or poem.
  • The student should determine the frequency and types of imagery. How many of them are there? Do they function integrally in the ideas of the poem or passage? Do they appeal to a variety of senses? For instance, do references to green plants and leaves and trees suggest in some way that life may be rich chlorophyll, or do references to touch suggest warmth?

In answering questions concerning imagery in your exam, it may not be possible for you to attend to all of these in one hour but if you do something about any two of the precepts above, you’d well be on your way to a good score.

Source: Edgar V. Roberts Writing Themes About Literature (1983) Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

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Bob Etemiku November 15, 2017 - 10:16 am

Thanks Sam. Just seeing this. Really appreciate your kind words.

Samuel Kayode Akinbo November 30, 2007 - 8:08 am

Hello Bob,

Nice one, I really appreciate the precious time you immolated in writing this article, may heaven smile on you and hug you till eternity.

Stay cool

Oh! I write poem, I publish them on The Nation, expect another one this sunday.

you acn reach me on 08062140218. I will like to be your friend,maybe when I come to lagos, we can both gist.



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