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. 

All creative works appeal to our 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 rely on our ability to hear, in the way an owl listens for a mouse in a hayloft.

Textile designers use texture, and dancers use movement.

As writers our problem is that we have to convey our ideas through the abstract medium of words.

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

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:

It is best to consider consequences before proceeding.

A thought with an image:

Look before you leap.

A thought without an image:

The verses I am writing have no vitality; they are unattractive and stale.

The same thought with images:

They are not pigs, they are not even fish,

Though they have a piggy and a fishy air…

(Sylvia Plath, Stillborn).

We might refer to writing without imagery as flat writing.

Flat writing attempts to convey ideas through:

Abstractions (actually, before).

Generalizations (everything, consequences).

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.

Generalizations can only be vaguely visualized as there are too many potential examples, such as: animal, kitchen equipment, something. 

Judgements try to tell us what to think about something instead of showing it, such as: beautiful, unattractive, insidious.

Sense impressions make writing vivid.

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.

When we watch a movie our limbic system is activated directly through what we see happening on the screen (and very much what we hear––it has often been said that we hear a movie).

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 have to rely on readers bringing 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. 

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.’

Words have both denotation and connotation.

Denotation refers to the literal meaning, or dictionary definition.

Connotation refers to the suggestion and implication the word has acquired through usage.

Words can be encrusted with the layers of all we have heard, read, seen, experienced.

In 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––that is 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 important 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 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––


1: Pick any noun (a person, place, thing, or abstraction).

2: Write a full page of metaphors for that noun, stating what it is not (this anti-metaphor is know as a conceit).

A window is not a snail

A window is not my grandfather’s knees

A window is not patriotism…

3: Now pick two or three of these (conceits) and write a few lines explaining why they are in fact alike. This can be as absurd as you wish.

For example: My window is a snail. It lives on my lawn, and moves slowly across it somehow hour by hour…

For homework turn some of these conceits into poems.

Here are some poems by Billy Collins to read:


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. 

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.

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.