Learning From Poems: Imagery

This year on Moving Writers, my “beat” returns to poetry as a foundational element of a writing classroom. Each month’s post will examine how we can learn about an aspect of writing from a specific poem or poems, then look at what it might sound like to extend those ideas to a writing lesson in any genre. Last month’s post was “Learning From Poems: Brevity.”

Photo by Khloe Arledge via Unsplash

Imagery is enjoyable to craft, but sometimes it takes a while for students to understand what it is.

I like to use this sentence to help define imagery: “Imagery is any detail that helps the reader imagine they are right there in the scene with you, living it, experiencing it. Imagery engages our five senses to make this happen.” If I can help students inextricably link the noun “imagery” and the verb “imagine” in their minds, then they will think of audience as they write and be able to fold their best, most imaginative experiences as readers into the experiences they create as writers.

Nonetheless, many students default to minimal or hackneyed imagery when they write, and unless it’s a beach vacation story where they want to share the sand on their toes, the sunshine on their skin, and the endless whisper of sun-glittered waves, they tend to fall back on “telling” readers rather than “showing.” This is especially true when they are working outside of narratives — on essays, for example.

As readers, however, we and our students intuitively know that the best essays and articles help us to imagine, take us on a little journey in our mind’s eye, even as they inform or persuade us. So all writers, whatever the mode or genre, need to have a grasp on how to craft excellent imagery.

Poems can help. They tend to pack a lot of punch when it comes to imagery, using both figurative and literal language.

Seasonal poems, rich in imagery, can be fun and relatively easy to read, but are overlooked in the secondary classroom. Many season-specific poems are written for adult readers and provide lessons in writing imagery that adolescent writers can transfer to other genres.

One of the first poems I share with students in my Poem of the Day routine each year corresponds to the late summer, as school is ramping up in Pennsylvania. Here it is:

“Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer” by Jane Kenyon, via Poetry Foundation

We discuss what lines use the five senses to help us to make a movie in our heads, to truly imagine we are there in the scene with the speaker. I point out that this is not just visual imagery in the poem, but sound (“The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled”) and taste (“we each took a pear,/and ate, and were grateful”) which add dimension to a simple scene. We even talk about how some of these images work like clues: the long grass and the stiff movements getting out of the car show us the speaker has traveled far and been gone for long.

The figurative images in this poem add a sense of danger to the scene that is otherwise tranquil: sparks from a fire and black holes.

In short, there is a lot going on in these two short stanzas. If you would like a seasonal poem that fits in a little better with late October, you might consider “Toward the Solstice” by Mark Perlberg or “The Signature Mark of Autumn” by Gary Young.

But how can imagery like the examples in this poem help us strengthen an essay?

Mentor texts can help our students to see that sometimes nonfiction writing can sound a lot like poetry. Consider these snippets:

  • From Sheelah Kolhatkar’s interview with Jeff Daniels in The New Yorker, 10/11/21: “Daniels was lounging on a rumpled couch in a purple T-shirt he hadn’t seen since 2019, his fingers hovering over the strings of a Martin acoustic guitar. A pair of round rimless spectacles slid down his nose.”
  • From GQ’s wristwatch columnist, Benjamin Clymer in GQ September 2021: “And then there’s my battle-scarred Omega Seamaster 300. The crystal is so scuffed you can barely see the circled T on the dial . . . It still has the sweat-stained NATO strap that came with the original.”
  • From an essay by Pat Forde in Sports Illustrated, October 2021 about the Lakeside Swim Club in Kentucky: “Nearly three acres or fertile frolicking territory await in an old limestone quarry that’s nestlesd amon an ecclectic collection of houses, ivy-covered 40-foot cliff walls, and towering redbud and sugar maple trees. In front, two-lane Trevillian Way meanders through Louisville’s Belknap neighborhood . . . .BLACK LIVES MATTER lawn signs are commonplace, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might be driving past them on the way to his nearby home.”

Yes, characters, objects, and places — all captured with vivid imagery — show up in every genre, not just narrative.

What about the genres our students write? Consider in the chart below how some common assignments might be linked to specific lines in the Jane Kenyon poem at the top of this post as we push our students to revise their work for more vivid imagery.

Writing with imagery is delightful to do, and students seldom resist it once they know what imagery is, why it works, and how it can look in the genre they have chosen or have been assigned. The trick is showing them difference between showing an image and telling an idea and then quickly finding a line that can mentor them in crafting imagery within their own work.

Poetry — with its brevity and intensity — is the perfect way to teach students how to be more artistic in their approach to writing, how to harness the pieces that help us best imagine something.

Winter, spring, summer, or fall . . . all you have to do is call . . and seasonal poems will be there to befriend you in your quest to move writers to craft more imagery.

What are some of your favorite seasonal poems to read with students? How do you coach your students to write with better imagery in all genres? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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