The world around you is a busy place, but as a writer you might also think of it as a feast. Your senses awake to a buffet of images every morning. Just take breakfast, for example: the steaming scrambled eggs awash with butter lounging on a bed of toast like fluffy yellow gods. These indignant gods, who’ve forgotten their lightness will soon be swept away by the velvet evil within the coffee cup beside them. How above the dish and the mug streams of aroma meld as one atmosphere slips into another.
Is that not how you take your eggs?
Maybe it’s not the eggs. For you it could be the dog or the rosebush, the children skipping into kindergarten, or the drone of the behemoth copy machine. We live in a world ready with image.
How Images are Made
Images are brought into the fabric of a piece of writing in several different ways.
- Simile uses “like” or “as” to link the thing to its representative other thing, building an image through explicit comparison.
- Metaphor shows an implicit connection between two things
Metaphor is often the trickier device of the two. Of metaphor, Mary Oliver writes, “the two things compared often seem very different, and the linkage often surprises and delights even as it enlightens.” Both metaphor and simile can provide linkages that enlighten the reader, as they build tension and point the reader toward an intangible thing—this is how we wring emotion and mood from our writing. Not by saying “I’m worried and amazed,” but by showing it.
Here is a great example from “First Anniversary, With Monkeys” of an image that shows a tension as it explores the complexities of relationships in the context of a hot, sweaty jungle:
There is no crumbly frozen cake to thaw.
Today, we are in the jungle. I mean mosquito. I mean
tigers and elephants sludging their way
to the lake for a drink and Don’t make sudden moves
or snakes startled from an afternoon nap
will greet you fang first. I think we are lost. Too hot
for any cold confection to survive. Even my tube
of sunblock is as warm as a baby’s bottle. . . . [emphasis added]
The jungle animals, the snakes who “will greet you fang first” are in alarming juxtaposition to a warm baby’s bottle—how did such a thing appear suddenly in the poem? Through the jungle, the speaker carries something essential, sunblock, but in her mind’s eye and in the eye of the poem it is “as warm as” a baby’s bottle. The “as” indicates a simile is being used to draw a link between two things. The link is between the essential and the precious. Exaggerated by the information we already have about the speaker, this is her first wedding anniversary with her husband.
Beyond the Metaphor
Here are some other ways to build images in your writing.
1) Extended metaphor
Using an extended metaphor can prolong the world of the metaphor and create an alternate environment. In W.S. Merwin’s “Bread”, for example, the poem opens with the image “Each face in the street is a slice of bread” and continues to craft the world of bread, “hung with the hollow marks of their groping” and “the ragged tunnels they dreamed of following in out of the light”, to the “heart of bread” until the final lines where, still within the shroud of the metaphor, we emerge:
to find themselves alone
before a wheat field
raising its radiance to the moon
Personification is the attribution of human characteristics to something nonhuman In “Golden Retrievals” by Mary Doty, you’ll notice something different about the speaker of the poem:
Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then
I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing… [emphasis added]
First, we notice that the dog is the speaker of the poem. In this first half of the poem he retains his dog-like thoughts, he is concerned with the things that would concern a dog: squirrels, balls, sticks, getting dirty, etc. But in the second half of the poem, the dog contemplates his human, using the thoughts and language of a human:
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,
or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it?
On the surface this poem seems fairly innocuous, but the deeper you go the more you realize the image of a dog in the park with a contemplative master is digging us towards the core of this poem; it’s about grief. Something is gone, someone is missing from the scene, and there is a solace, only it’s not the human who realizes it:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,
a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.
Allusion is a brief and intentional reference to a mythic, historical, or literary person, place, event, or movement. A great example of a literary allusion is Louise Glück’s “Parable of the Hostages,” can you guess what the allusion is to from these first lines?
The Greeks are sitting on the beach
wondering what to do when the war ends. No one
wants to go home…
The entire world of Glück’s poem is an allusion to The Odyssey, picking up after the fall of Troy. Without saying his name, Glück specifically calls upon the travels of Odysseus and contemplates the reluctance of the Greeks to return home, without knowing that their journey would take them ten years to complete:
that of their small number
some would be held forever by the dreams of pleasure,
some by sleep, some by music?
Now it’s your turn! Try your hand at image-building with one of these devices: simile, metaphor, extended metaphor, personification, or allusion. To make things interesting, imagine yourself stranded on a tropical island. You have only a toaster, three knives, a jumbo package of Pixy Stix and a worn-out copy of Paradise Lost. Here are a few ways you might get started:
Metaphor – You are an island
1) Simile – This island is as hot as…
2) Extended metaphor – You are an island, your mother is the sea, every one of your siblings is a boat that passes by
3) Personification – turn the toaster into your version of Winston and give him human attributes
4) Allusion – incorporate a brief moment from John Milton’s famous work
Danielle Mitchell graduated cum laude from the University of Redlands with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing, and now lives in Long Beach. In 2010, Danielle was selected as one of ten up-and-coming poets in Pop Art: Anthology of Southern California Poetry published by Moon Tide Press. Later that year, she released her first chapbook, Poem Food. Danielle has been a featured reader at Beyond Baroque, Loyola Marymount University, the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, the Small Press Book Festival in Santa Monica, and the Ugly Mug in Orange home of the Two Idiots Peddling Poetry.
In 2013, Danielle founded The Poetry Lab, a bi-monthly writing group for poets in all stages of their careers. She also hosts the Stranded Artist Series, a quarterly poetry event featuring a visiting writer’s workshop and reading. Danielle’s prose poems have appeared in Cease, Cows, East Jasmine Review, and Four Chambers Press, earlier work has appeared in Mixed Fruit and dirtcakes among others. She hopes to complete work on her full length book of poems in 2014.