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Imagery and Poetry by Adelere Adesina


One of the things that make poetry beautiful and deep is imagery. Well, imagery, I believe we agree, is the imprint of pictures in the mind of a reader or listener by the use of words. Therefore, imagery in poetry is the use of words to create pictures in the mind of its audience. It is one thing to know imagery, and another to know how it works. I do say, 'Imagery is in every word.' What do I mean by this?

Imagery: Making and Modification of Pictures

Whereas the very widely identified function of imagery is the making of pictures, the other function of it is the shaping of the pictures that are created. In other words, qualifying the creation is a part of creation. In fact, the object of creation is not complete until it is made distinct and specific. Imagery has the other important part of attributing to specific features to pictures created in the mind.

As I have said earlier, the commonly defined importance of imagery is the use of words to create pictures which appeal to one or more of the following senses:

1. sense of taste (e.g. sweet, sour, etc.),
2. sense of sight (e.g. ugly, brown, etc.),
3. sense of smell (e.g. reek, fragrance, etc.),
4. sense of hearing (e.g. deafening, sonorous, etc.) and
5. sense of touch (e.g. soft, coarse, etc).

Words that appeal to these senses seem to be what comes to a person's mind when they hear the word 'imagery'. True that this is, there is this other sense, call it the sixth, the mind. The mind that processes/receives the message related to the other five senses is largely influenced not by words that belong to any of the five categories above, but by words that shape those in the categories above. The grammarian will call these words structural words, and the ones belonging to the categories listed above content words in the sentence. It is strange but true that the real picture comes into existence by content words, and is beautified by structural words.

Let us get down to an illustration on this. I will write a sentence now. Critically examine it in your mind before you proceed to reading the analysis that follows. The sentence goes:

I saw a boy and three men in the house.

What came to your mind as you read that? Well, let us get to see what could possibly have popped into your mind. Words appealing to your sight seem to be very significant: 'I’, ‘saw', 'boy' 'men' and 'house'. However, these words make any perfect meaning to you, creating those pictures in your mind, just because the other words in that sentence instruct the mind how to relate the content words. We will do well to see how each of these other words does their part in imagery.

The word 'a': Did you ever wonder why you did not think there were five boys? Or did you ever ponder why you did not think of a boy you knew before the speaker said that? It is this word, 'a', that specifies just one unknown (indefinite) boy. So, when in your mind, you see a figure like a boy, it is just 'one unknown boy', and can not be 'ten boys'.

The word 'and': You sure did believe the speaker had more to say, and more that would agree, to a large extent, to what has been said earlier. Your mind, on reading/listening to 'and', believed it had to keep painting the pictures that it received. It would just go on to take in other pieces of information that make up the whole pictures.

The word 'three': Just like 'a', 'three' gives the mind the specific number of male grown-ups to imagine. Just 'three'.

The word 'in': Well, you did not think they were on the roof or whatever, did you? 'In' does a good deal of job in telling the mind to put the three men and the boy not beside, nor away from, nor outside of the house, but in it.

The word 'the': Your mind assumed it was one house that you have known before. Right? You pictured a house that perhaps the writer/speaker had spoken about earlier. That is how much 'the' reshapes the picture.

Therefore, whereas the pictures are created by words like 'boy', 'house', or what have you, the pictures are perfect by words like 'a', 'in', etc. Each word contributes to the images of a sentence, either by creating it or by perfecting/modifying it.

The Distortion

At times, the poet can distort images, and attract the reader's attention much more to such twists in the modelling of the pictures. This distortion is the use of words which either do not create the right images or do not perfect the images rightly. In such cases, the writer or speaker may intend to show imperfection and irregularity not only in the pictures, but about the chaotic world. Consider the following lines of poetry:

It was a night sunk
in an oceans of ruins.
It was a nighted war
in bloods of a gods.

The distortions appear with the use of the singular word 'an' followed by the plural word 'oceans', the use of the word 'night' as though it were a verb, and the use of the word 'blood' as thought it were countable. These distortions not only attract the attention of the mind more to what imperfections they are, but to what imperfections the real world is. The poet can use distortion to illustrate abnormality in an occurrence, say of a bad leader, not only in the message but in how the mind does receive the message in the pictures. Consider the following lines, too:

He, the orb, has worn we
as he won us.
He has gave us many a torn
that is wear for our fame.

The above lines do not only paint imperfect pictures with 'we', 'gave’, ‘torn' and 'wear', but also use this imagery to explain how imperfect the ruler has been in his government.

This same distortion can be used to create comic effects or grave impressions in the mind of the reader or listener. Distortion is put to effect by rhetorical devices such as antiptosis, metaplasm, anthimeria, enallage, heterosis, hyperbation, tmesis, etc.

In conclusion, imagery is in every word: it is the poet who paints that should use the right paint to create the right images, even if they are distortions. Your pen is an artist: let it draw the perfect pictures and create the perfect distortions when they are right. Thank you.


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