Imagery and Its Importance
So why is imagery so important when creating poetry? Practising poets of today have a particular fascination with using what they term concrete images in order to best evoke the tone and mood of a poem. The theory is that by describing a situation using imagery, the reader’s senses are evoked, which might symbolise certain thoughts or feelings. Imagery allows the reader to see through the poet’s eyes, to touch, hear, taste or smell through the evocation of their words.
Below is an extract from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. This piece particularly uses a lot of imagery. Thomas wrote the piece as what he termed ‘a play for voices’ and it was famously broadcast in the 1950s on radio using a variety of voices but chiefly narrated by Richard Burton. The piece is cross-genre, neither entirely a play, nor entirely a poem. It is perhaps best summed up as verbal-based poetic prose*. As a piece of work, it is one of the most striking examples of the sheer power of language to evoke all the senses, and to help us see a whole world in our minds through an irrepressible play with words, images and details.
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters-and-rabbits’ wood limpinginvisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.
The houses are blind as moles(though moles see fine tonight in the snouting velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.
Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives.
Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrogered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards;
and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
[Notice also how Thomas sometimes joins certain nouns, verbs and adjectives together – ‘crowblack’, ‘cocklewomen’, ‘organplaying’, ‘jollyrogered’, ‘wetnosed’: this is known broadly as ‘poetic licence’, and has led some poets and writers to alter the function of some words or to, say, turn nouns into verbs – such as Thomas does here by inventing the term ‘bridesmaided’. Underline or put a circle round all the images and metaphors you can find – there are many, many in this extract.
In the extract, note how Thomas employs a technique of listing or piling up image on image, in order to create a tumbling effect of sensory (visual, aural, tangible etc.) evocation. Most of all, Thomas excelled at aural evocation, through his emphasis on the sounds words make, grouping words with similar vowels or consonants together.
Assonance, Alliteration and Sibilance: The grouping of vowel sounds of words in poetry is called assonance and that of consonant sounds, alliteration (there is also sibilance which, as its hissing name suggests, is the emphasis on ‘s’ sounds in words). An example of alliteration at its most loaded is in the tongue-twister: ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper….’ No prizes for guessing which is the key consonant in this: P. But in poetry, it is also important not to employ alliteration to the extent of this example, else a poem would end up sounding a bit stupid. Alliteration should always be used sparingly.
Onomatopoeia refers to words that imitate the sound they are describing, such as animal noises like oink or meow, or suggesting its source object, such as boom, zoom, click, clang, buzz, bang etc.
Here is a poem by Harold Monro, written around 1916, which, demonstrates alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia. See if you can identify each instance when these features occur in the poem.
Go along that road, and look at sorrow.
Every window grumbles.
All day long the drizzle fills the puddles,
Trickles in the runnels and the gutters,
Drips and drops and dripples, drops and dribbles,
While the melancholy aspidistra
Frowns between the parlour curtains.
Uniformity, dull Master!—
Birth and marriage, middle-age and death;
Rain and gossip: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday . . .
Sure, the lovely fools who made Utopia
Planned it without any aspidistra.
There will be a heaven on earth, but first
We must banish from the parlour
Plush and poker-work and paper flowers,
Brackets, staring photographs and what-nots,
Serviettes, frills and etageres,
Anti-macassars, vases, chiffoniers;
And the gloomy aspidistra
Glowering through the window-pane,
Meditating heavy maxims,
Moralising to the rain.
compiled by Alan Morrison for Creative Future
*a piece written in poetic language and read as a loose narrative, interspersed with dialogues and monologues