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Image in Poetry

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What is an image? This is a question that philosophers and poets have asked themselves for thousands of years and have yet to definitively answer. The most widely used definition of an image these days is:" intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" (Ezra Pound).

But this definition from Pound has a history to it. Before Pound outlined his definition, the image was seen very differently by most people. Therefore, the question "what is an image?" immediately breaks down into three fundamental parts:

1) Where do images come from?

2) Once an image is created, what is it?

3) How can an image function in a poem?

Before we answer these questions, we'll want to discuss some terms related to image so that we can use them in our answers.

Related Terms


The category of which all images, as varied and lively as they are, fall into. "Imagery is best defined as the total sensory suggestion of poetry" (John Ciardi, World Book Dictionary def. of "Imagery.")


1) The mental laboratory used for the creation of images and new ideas.

2) "n. A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership." (Ambrose Bierce, 60)

3) "Imagination is not, as its etymology would suggest, the faculty of forming images of reality; it is rather the faculty of forming images which go beyond reality, which sing reality." (Gaston Bachelard, "On Poetic Imagination and Reverie," 15)


A school of poetry and poetics made popular by Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) in the early 20th century that focused on "direct treatment of the thing, whether subjective or objective." H.D.'s "Sea Garden" is often seen as a good example of this style.

Concrete detail

A detail in a poem that has a basis in something "real" or tangible, not abstract or intellectual, based more in things than in thought.

Sensory detail

A detail that draws on any of the five senses. This is very often also a concrete detail.

Where do images come from?

The first question is one best left to psychologists and philosophers of language. Perhaps one of the most complete philosophical inquiries (and the one that seemed to create a dramatic break from classical philosophy) was that of Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard believed that the image originated straight out of human consciousness, from the very heart of being. Whereas before the image was seen merely as a representation of an object in the world, Bachelard believed that the image was its own object and that it could be experienced by a reader who allowed him or herself the opportunity to "dream" the image (the "reverie" of reading poetry). The image then could not be intellectualized so much as experienced.

He even went so far as to claim that "Intellectual criticism of poetry will never lead to the center of where poetic images are formed" ("Poetic Imagination" 7). He believed that the image erupts from the mind of the poet, that the poet is not entirely in control of the image and therefore is not seen as "causing" the image to come into being. Since the image has no "cause," the image has no past, and, subsequently, is an object in and of itself, separate from its maker and separate from the object it describes. He claims "[The image] becomes a new being in our language, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression, and a becoming of our being."

Bachelard is, of course, just one person's opinion on the matter, but his philosophy does hold true to the somewhat enigmatic and difficult-to-pin-down nature of the image. Where the image comes from is an issue that will probably never be solved, but suffice to say that if you approach its making as a mystery (and allow it to simply happen without too much intellectualizing) you will at least keep in line with one major aspect of its origin, that of the unknown.