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Composing Free Verse with Visual Imagery

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July 2012
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An image is a visual picture like a snapshot or photograph. Creating visual imagery is a powerful way to compose a poem, bringing it to life, recreating an experience, communicating in ways that entertain.

Poets use imagery to compose free verse poetry. They create interesting images with description, vivid details, and by showing the reader, not telling them.

Poets also convert the abstract into something concrete, something that can be understood. This understanding evokes an emotional response in the reader.

Here’s a good example of how poet, Gary Soto, creates a powerful, compelling, entertaining poem with imagery:

Who Will Know Us? by Gary Soto

for Jaroslav Seifert

It is cold, bitter as a penny.

I’m on a train, rocking toward the cemetery

To visit the dead who now

Breathe through the grass, through me,

Through relatives who will come

And ask, Where are you?

Cold. The train with its cargo

Of icy coal, the conductor

With his loose buttons like heads of crucified saints,

His mad puncher biting zeros through tickets.

The window that looks onto its slate of old snow.

Cows. The barbed fences throat-deep in white.

Farm houses dark, one wagon

With a shivering horse.

This is my country, white with no words,

House of silence, horse that won’t budge

To cast a new shadow. Fence posts

That are the people, spotted cows the machinery

That feed Officials. I have nothing

Good to say. I love Paris

And write, “Long Live Paris!”

I love Athens and write,

“The great book is still in her lap.”

Bats have intrigued me,

The pink vein in a lilac.

I’ve longed to open an umbrella

In an English rain, smoke

And not give myself away,

Drink and call a friend across the room,

Stomp my feet at the smallest joke.

But this is my country.

I walk a lot, sleep.

I eat in my room, read in my room,

And make up women in my head —

Nostalgia, the cigarette lighter from before the war,

Beauty, tears that flow inward to feed its roots.

The train. Red coal of evil.

We are its passengers, the old and young alike.

Who will know us when we breathe through the grass?

In this article, I’ll write about how you can use imagery to write free verse poetry. First, I’ll define what imagery means, and then I’ll explain how to create poems that include imagery.

Definition of Imagery

An image is like a scene in a film. It is concrete, specific, and particular. It shows vivid details that evoke an emotional reaction. The image shows the reader. Imagery appeals to the senses: the readers sense of sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, touch.

Imagery was born from a group of poets who called themselves the “imagists.” In 1913, poet, Ezra Pound, wrote a short manifesto, which was highly influential, for the imagist movement, a force that had a huge impact on developing modern poetry, especially the free verse poem. Pound wrote that poetry should consist of vivid “concrete images” instead of abstract ideas. He wrote: “use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.” Pound’s most famous poem was very short, and titled “In a Station of the Metro.” It reveals how powerful imagery can be.

In a Station of the Metro

by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

There are two types of images that you can create:

  • The literal image. Using vivid details and concrete, specific and particular details to construct the image.
  • The figurative image. Using simile, metaphor, symbolism, personification to create the image.

As well, compose a poem using sensory imagery. It is language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing.  Use language that describes how something or someone smells, how someone or something feels, how something or someone tastes, what do you see. Writing about the senses speaks to your readers emotions and to your imagination.

And, you show your reader instead of telling them.

What is the difference between showing and telling?

Telling: It rained this morning.

Showing: On this hot, humid summer day,  for just a few minutes, the rain poured down unexpectedly like a morning shower in the bathroom that turns from hot to cold, making you shiver as though it was winter.

Telling the reader means to write “declarative statements”. These are composed with facts, not vivid details, not vivid descriptions.

The golden rule of poetry is to show, don’t tell. (Writing the life Poetic by Sage Cohen) The easiest way to show readers is by writing concrete, specific, particular descriptions of things, people, places, experiences, abstractions.

You can also show your readers by converting the abstract into something concrete with metaphor or simile. Both the simile and metaphor enable you to compare one thing, something abstract,  with something else, something that is concrete.

Example: What is freedom? It is like throwing off the chains/ that shackle you to your past/ and running free in a field/ of sun flowers to the pristine lake/where a row boat waits/ for you to escape/ to a new life/.

When composing a poem, there are times when you’ll want to tell your readers things. Sage Cohen, the author of “Writing the Life Poetic”, suggests using the following guideline: “A good question to ask yourself every time you make a declarative statement is “What would happen if I described this instead of naming it? In other words, experiment with your creative writing.”

Figurative Language

Use figurative language or trope to create vivid images, to surprise, to invoke a particular mood or tone, to create a pleasurable read of a poem. Figurative language makes an association with something that is different, such as comparing the abstract to the concrete or one object to another object that is different. Here are the most popular types of figurative language:

  • Simile-Using like or as to compare one thing to another. Example: The house looked like a garbage dump.
  • Metaphor– A direct comparison between different things. Comparing one thing to another without using like or as. Example: She is the Goddess of Eros walking the beach. His life is a party.
  • Symbolism-Using a word to mean something more than its literal meaning, a word that has a connotation of something else. Examples: Cross, dove, water, fire, white, black. Some symbols are personal; the writer creates them. Other symbols are universal, understood very everyone, and so they are “archtypes.”
  • Synecdoche-Using an associated quality of something to represent the whole. Example:  Cleats and helmets raced up the football field, crashing, careening.
  • Metonymy-Using a word or phrase to represent or stand for another word that is closely associated with it. The gun represents military aggression. The guns and grenades turned the quiet town into a war zone, corpses littering the streets.
  • Personification-Assigning human attributes or qualities to things, animals, nature, anything that is not human. Example: The wind whispered……………the tree stood at attention…the sky wept….

Creating Imagery

How do you create interesting and memorable poems with imagery? First, convert an “abstract idea”, such a love, death, freedom, into a “concrete image.” How do you convert the abstract into something concrete? You do the following:

  • Write vivid details. Example: The rusty gate cut his hand like a knife.
  • Write concrete, specific, particular descriptions. Example: Sweating and out of breath/ tormented by the ghosts of memory/She cycled/ the yellow twenty speed bike/the one her deceased husband had given her/ up the steep gravel road/a place where they walked, shared secrets/as though she was racing in the Tour De France
  • Simile. Using “like” or “as” to compare one thing to something different. Example: He composed the poem like someone who was possessed by madness.
  • Metaphor. Comparing one thing to something other thing that is different, without using like or as. Examples: The used book is junk…The house is a graveyard…The car is a home…The woman is a mannequin dressed in the finest clothes that money can purchase.
  • Symbolism, personification, synecdoche, metonymy. (see the previous section for details)


All good poets use the various tools in the imagery toolbox to construct free verse poetry. Imagery involves converting the abstract into something concrete. Imagery is about associations, comparing one concrete thing to another. Imagery is about using language that appeals to the readers sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Writing in images requires that you create “word pictures” with simile, metaphor, concrete and specific and particular details. Imagery is an essential technique for writing compelling and illuminating and pleasurable free verse poetry.


To learn more about using imagery, read the following:

  • The Poetry Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.
  • Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet within by Kim Addonizio
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited and introduced by Elizabeth H. Schmidt, forward by Billy Collins
  • Writing the Life Poetic: An Introduction to Read & Write Poetry by Sage Cohen

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