Imagery and Metaphor.

Imagery and Metaphor.

Much of this is summarized from Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway.


If I say: ‘Not everything that appears to be valuable is actually valuable,’ then you will understand me in a general kind of way, but perhaps feel I am overstating the obvious.

But if I say: ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ then you will literally ‘see’ a picture in your mind. 

All creative writing attempts to work by conjuring up pictures in the mind of the reader or listener.

As creative writers we attempt to portray people, places, and objects as if they are actually present, and we do this by the use of sense impressions: We write by relating what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. We could call these ‘Animal Senses,’ as animals have these senses––sometimes a great deal better than we do. 

All creative works appeal to the animal senses:

Painters make use of sight and light to convey their images.
A painting can’t convey its imagery in a darkened room, any more than a falcon can hunt in the night sky. 

Musicians can easily convey their imagery in darkened rooms, because music doesn’t rely on the animal sense of sight. In the same way an owl can hunt in total darkness by using her phenomenal sense of hearing.

Textile designers use our sense of touch to convey their imagery, and Dancers use movement (or stillness) to convey theirs.

As writers our problem is that we have to convey our ideas through the abstract medium of words. For instance, the word ‘night’ doesn’t look any darker on the printed page than the word ‘day.’ Even though the words night and day might conjure up images, the images are a little vague, and those images might be very different to the ones we want to convey. After all you can have a dull day, and a bright night.
That’s why a poet might convey the idea of night by writing something like:

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

When you read these words your mind constructs the exact sense of nighttime that the poet (Edgar Allen Poe) wants to convey, namely a time of psychological threat from things of both the physical world and of the imagination.

Writing becomes an art form when we surrender ourselves to the world of images.

To the writer an image is a word or series of words that evokes one of the senses.

If you can GROK this fact (GROK means to understand intuitively––in the gut), then you can be a creative writer.

A thought without an image The same thought with an image
It is best to consider consequences before proceeding. Look before you leap.
The verses I am writing have no vitality; they are unattractive and stale. They are not pigs, they are not even fish,

Though they have a piggy and a fishy air (Sylvia Plath)

We might refer to writing without imagery as flat writing.

Flat writing attempts to convey ideas through:

Abstractions (actually, before); Generalizations (everything, consequences); and Judgements (vitality, unattractive).

Abstractions are the names of ideas or or concepts that cannot be experienced directly through our senses, such as: Intelligence, criticism, love, and anger. It’s abstract to say: Margaret woke up angry.  It’s less abstract to say: Margaret threw her alarm clock at the wall.

Generalizations can only be vaguely visualized as there are too many potential examples, such as: animal, kitchen equipment, something. The simplest way to avoid Generalizations is through the use of specifics. Dog is more specific than Animal. Poodle  is even more specific than Dog. A miniature poodle named Frank is more specific still.

Judgements try to tell us what to think about something instead of showing it, such as: beautiful, unattractive, insidious.
So instead of writing: Joe was insidious, we might write Joe always had broad smile across his face, and knife hidden behind his back. 

In order to make our writing vivid we have to use sense impressions instead of abstractions, generalizations, and judgements.

Information is taken in through the five senses and processed through the limbic system in the brain, this in turn generates physical responses in the body, affecting heart-rate, breathing, muscular reactions.

Emotional response consists of these reactions, so in order to write emotionally we have to get into the limbic system of the reader. It’s a little like the El Duende Elf we spoke about last week.

When we watch a movie, especially at a theater, our limbic system is activated directly through what we see happening on the screen, this includes:

1: Action: We spoke about dancers earlier. Even without music a dancer can use gesture to give us emotional response. A raised fist to cause alarm, or outspread arms to make us feel welcome.
2: The film director Alfred Hitchcock said that the story is told through close-ups. We can easily cause emotional response through moving our eyes, eyebrows, and mouths. We do it without thinking. Actors are trained to use facial expression. Our faces are around 9 inches high. A movie actors face can be 9 feet high––or more––on a big screen. That’s a lot of expressivity.
3: Color, light (or lack of it), architecture, landscape, clothing (or lack thereof), can all be used to convey emotion on the screen.
4: Sound: voice (deep, gentle, forceful, whiny), tone (shouting, whispering), sound effects (the sound of rain makes us feel one way, the sound of an explosion makes us feel another way).
5: Music: It’s often said that we hear a movie as much as see it. Few things evoke more feeling than music. As writers we have no access to music––or do we? Is this the power of poetry. By the use of rhythm, cadence, and stresses, we can maybe play music in the reader’s mind.

Say, for instance, we have a character named Max. Max is exceptionally handsome, and uses his good looks to get what he wants. How do we introduce Max into out narrative? A movie director merely needs to cast one of the many handsome Hollywood leading men to play the part of Max, and he’s halfway solved the problem before Max even says anything.
We could just say ‘Max was exceptionally handsome…” but that’s a little abstract.
We could say, ‘Max had even features and lush brown hair…” and that’s a little better–but not much.
We could say, ‘Max looked a little like a Beatles era George Harrison…” now we’re beginning to convey an image.

The problem for the writer is that all that is literally seen by the reader are the sequences of little black and white symbols on the page (letters).
The symbols must be translated by the readers brain, first into language, and then into ideas and images.
We can see this as a code. The writer dreams up images, and encodes them onto the page, the reader then decodes the images and experiences them for herself.

Denotation and Connotation.
Most of the above talks about how we, as writers have to overcome the disadvantages we have when compared to other types of creators. However, we do have some powers that they don’t have.
For instance, we can rely on readers to bring their own memories and experiences into reading, and at this level we begin to understand that words not only
denote their literal meanings, but also connote their implied meanings.
Words can be encrusted with the layers of all we have heard, read, seen, experienced.

Consider the words “group,” “clique” and “club.” All three have basically the same denotative meaning: a set of more than one person. Each of these words has a different connotative meaning, however.
“Group” has a neutral connotation, because it simply describes a number of people. It does not inspire either positive or negative feelings.
“Clique,” also means a group of people, but it carries a negative connotation. This is because “clique” is typically used in circumstances where the group is known for excluding others. This word should be used carefully: If you want to be thought of as a welcoming group, the negative connotation of this word will turn people off!
Likewise, “club” also refers to a group of people, but this word has a more positive connotation because a club is a collection of people that voluntarily come together for a shared passion or purpose.

Connotative Words: Examples and Exercises

To see more example of how words with similar denotations can have positive, neutral or negative connotations, refer to the chart below:

Positive Connotation Neutral Connotation Negative Connotation
interested questioning nosy
employ use exploit
thrifty saving stingy
steadfast tenacious stubborn
sated filled crammed
courageous confident conceited
unique different peculiar
meticulous selective picky
vintage old decrepit
elated happy manic

How we frame a word can also affect its power of denotation. A moment earlier we talked about how Max uses his good looks to get what he wants.We immediately dislike Max, and the verb uses has a very negative denotation. We suspect that Max uses people too.
If we say, Max uses a stick of charcoal to draw Emma’s portrait. The same word becomes neutral. On the other hand Max might use a pencil sharpened like a stiletto to sketch out her portrait for Charles.

This is how the poet, Shelley uses connotation to describe the face of a statue in the poem Ozymandias:

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read…
(can you hear the music in this excerpt? For me it’s a doom laden, discordant march, pounding away: doom…doom…doom).
Almost every word here has negative connotations: Sunk, shattered, visage, wrinkled, sneer, command. The poem describes a tyrant from a past era, and we’re glad he’s gone.
Had Shelley used words like: Hidden, broken, portrait, faded, smile… the poem would tell a very different story.
Here’s another example. We were just speaking of George Harrison, this is his song, SOMETHING.
Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
I don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe and how

[Verse 2]
Somewhere in her smile she knows
That I don’t need no other lover…
Finally, look at this example by Shakespeare (which you probably already know):
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Poetry attempts to produce an emotional response through heightened evocation of the senses, and imagery holds a central place among its techniques.

But not all imagery is metaphorical, sometimes it literally paints pictures in the mind.

Western wind when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

(Anonymous 13th Century)

There is no metaphor here, the author merely evokes the force of the wind and the rain through the use of language.

Look at the alliteration in the repetition of the ‘W sounds in the first line, ending with the emphatic BLOW with its long ‘O.’

See how much connotation there is in the language of the poem above, the word LOVE carries within it all the ideas of longing, lust, romance, and tenderness.

BED evokes safety, warmth, and comfort, when contrasted to wind and rain, but more than this it carries the idea of sex when placed close to the word LOVE.

A metaphor is a figure of speech, or more precisely an analogy. By that I mean an expression not intended to be taken literally, but to stand in for an idea related to the word in some way.
There are many figures of speech, but the five most important ones to consider are the following:

Metonymy: Where the idea is related to something associated with it (the crowns of Europe).

Synecdoche: Where the idea is represented by using a part of it (all hands on deck).

Personification: In which human characteristics are given to inanimate objects (a gentle breeze).

Metaphor: a direct comparison (the woman is a rose)

Simile: an indirect comparison (the woman is like a rose).

Of these, metaphor and simile are the most essential to the creative writer.

A metaphor assumes an understanding of the comparison without stating that it is a comparison:

Metaphors can be nouns: Her hair is seaweed and she is the sea.

Metaphors can be adjectives: …a piggy and a fishy air…

Metaphors can be verbs: the bees shouldering the grass…

A Simile overtly states the comparison between two things: 

My teeth rattled like dice in a box.

My head was as light as a balloon.

Here is a poem by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers––
That perches in the soul––
And sings the tune without the words––
And never stops––at all––

Which brings us to today’s exercise, which we can call Anti-Metaphor.
Emily Dickinson compares hope to a bird. It has feathers, it perches, and it sings…all of which are bird-like qualities. This is a little absurd. ‘Hope’ is nothing like a bird––that is until Emily Dickinson convinces us that it is.
So, rather than a bird being a metaphor for hope, it’s actually more of an anti-metaphor.
The technical term for an anti-metaphor is a conceit.
However I think the term anti-metaphor is more useful when it comes to learning how to use this amazing literary device.

These are the instructions for the Anti-Metaphor exercise.

1: Pick any noun. This can be a person, place, thing, or an abstraction. Abstractions, generalizations and judgements actually work quite well for this exercise.

2: Write as many metaphors for that noun, as you can, stating what it is not.

I’ve chosen Poem as my noun.
Here are some things that a poem is not.
A poem is not a snail
A poem is not my grandfather’s knees
A poem is not a computer…and so forth.

3: Now pick two or three of these anti-metaphors and write a few lines explaining why they are in fact alike. This can be as absurd as you wish.
Let’s say: My poem is like my computer because it doesn’t work.

Finally, write a poem based on the anti-metaphor. This is mine:

Sir, I bought this poem from you last week,
And it doesn’t work. I read the instructions
On the box it said adjectives not included.
I inserted eight, two syllable adjectives,
As per your directions,
Mostly concerning color, shape, and size.
The poem still didn’t work.
In the troubleshooting guide you said:
Remove all of the metaphors,
Then replace them one at a time.
That should reveal if
Any of the metaphors aren’t working.
It still didn’t work.
Carefully following the diagram
I removed the imagery of the crucified Christ,
And placed it in one of your other poems
About a fishing trip.
It broke the other poem.
Finally I disconnected the opening stanza
And replaced it with the opening stanza
Of Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard––
The one about the lowing cows
Winding over the lea.
It worked until it reached the ploughman
Plodding home, then smoke began to
Spiral out one of the end-rhymes.
I am returning it, and I expect a full refund. 

When you’re happy with your anti-metaphor poem, upload to the space in Canvas: Assignments.
If that doesn’t work you can email it to me.

Here are some poems by Billy Collins that seem filled to the gunwales with conceits:


I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means. 

How many conceits can you find?
A poem is not a photographic slide;
A poem is not a maze;
A poem is not a bedroom;
A poem is not a lake;
A poem is not a captured spy…and yet in the hands of Billy Collins a poem might be all of these things.
Let’s loo at a few more.

Billy Collins


Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.


From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night,
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.
I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.
I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.
I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.
I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow;
when evening is shadowing the forest
and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,
we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boy and his sister receding into the woods.

(I always love the Hansel and Gretel reference at the end of the above poem).

The Man in the Moon

He used to frighten me in the nights of childhood,
the wide adult face, enormous, stern, aloft.
I could not imagine such loneliness, such coldness.
But tonight as I drive home over these hilly roads
I see him sinking behind stands of winter trees
and rising again to show his familiar face.
And when he comes into full view over open fields
he looks like a young man who has fallen in love
with the dark earth,
a pale bachelor, well-groomed and full of melancholy,
his round mouth open
as if he had just broken into song.


I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.
And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.
But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.
What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging—
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.
Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.
The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.
In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four, or possibly none.
But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.