imagery in poetry

2 posts

The Importance of Imagery in “Sit and Write” Poems


There are ekphrastic poems, yes, where you write about another painter’s vision on canvas, but what about your own vision when you’re just hanging out in a favorite spot?

That’s the premise of what I call a “Sit and Write” poem—one that puts your description skills to the test. Consider Charles Wright’s “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night.” I love the nonchalant start he gives it in Line 1 of this poem. Let’s join him for a look, shall we?


Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night
by Charles Wright

I’ve always liked the view from my mother-in-law’s house at night,
Oil rigs off Long Beach
Like floating lanterns out in the smog-dark Pacific,
Stars in the eucalyptus,
Lights of airplanes arriving from Asia, and town lights
Littered like broken glass around the bay and back up the hill.

In summer, dance music is borne up
On the sea winds from the hotel’s beach deck far below,
“Twist and Shout,” or “Begin the Beguine.”
It’s nice to think that somewhere someone is having a good time,
And pleasant to picture them down there
Turned out, tipsy and flushed, in their white shorts and their
turquoise shirts.

Later, I like to sit and look up
At the mythic history of Western civilization,
Pinpricked and clued through the zodiac.
I’d like to be able to name them, say what’s what and how who got
Curry the physics of metamorphosis and its endgame,
But I’ve spent my life knowing nothing.


Oil rigs don’t sound very promising until they become floating lanterns in the Pacific. The “smog-dark” Pacific. I learned hyphenated adjectives from the master—Dylan Thomas. Read his poetic short story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and you’ll be wowed, too.

The last line of stanza one offers another neat little simile, comparing town lights to “littered…broken glass around the bay and back up the hill.” Again, we get a negative association (broken glass) turned lovely by the imagery Wright employs.

In the second stanza, I wonder about Wright’s wistfulness. When he says, “It’s nice to think that somewhere someone is having a good time,” is he implying that he, himself, isn’t, or should we take it a face value? Either way, it’s a kindness—one enhanced by his gentle acceptance of their drunkenness and poor dressing decisions.

The turn comes in the third stanza. Notice how the zooming in suddenly pans out to the night sky. And Wright matches the image by thinking big, too, about Western civilization, no less, as he looks at the mythological figures traced out (poorly, I might add) by the stars.

One summer I memorized most of the constellations in the utter dark over Maine, but I’ve since lost a few. Thus, I can identify with Wright’s wrap-up: “But I’ve spent my life knowing nothing.”

Clearly he’s not as generous with himself as he is with others. The line, too, reminds me of James Wright’s (no relation) finish in “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (a second cousin to “Sit and Write” poems—namely “Lie and Write” poems). That one ends: “I have wasted my life.”

Man, these Wright boys. They’re tough on themselves, no?

The Moment vs. Writer’s Block

Some people are fervent believers in writer’s block. They stare at paper. Paper stares back at them. They stare at screens. Screens stare back at them.

Me? I’m rude. I write on paper and type across screens with little regard for their whiteness.

What’s in a first draft, after all? Mostly garbage. So why so much respect for writer’s block?

Whenever I hear talk of writer’s block, I bring up the pedestrian term moment. “OK,” I say, real casual like, “write about a moment. Could be any moment. Could be this moment, even. Moments don’t care. They’re free and, when it comes to first drafts, every one of them is willing — more than willing — to share.”

All of which means you’ll be doing one of two things: a.) checking into stand-out memories and asking yourself the 5 W’s/1 H (who, what, why, when, where, how) and the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell), OR b.) drinking in the moment around you right now, hitting you over the head, practically. Clearing its throat. Waving its arms and asking, “What about me, writer? I’m game for the 5 W’s, the 1 H, and the five senses, too.”

You can bet the poet Evan Boland did a. or b. above when she penned the first draft to the poem below, aptly named…


The Moment
Eavan Boland

A neighborhood.
At dusk.

Things are getting ready
to happen
out of sight.

Stars and moths.
And rinds slanting around fruit.

But not yet.

One tree is black.
One window is yellow as butter.

A woman leans down to catch a child
who has run into her arms
this moment.

Stars rise.
Moths flutter.
Apples sweeten in the dark.


If you’re wondering what words appeared in her first draft, I’m worried about you. Go to the concrete imagery first: stars, moths, fruit rinds, a black tree, a lit window, a mother and child.

If that list doesn’t look like much to you, then you don’t understand the writing process. Yes, even a list counts as a first draft in my book, and even a list brings the mighty writer’s block to its knees (assuming blocks have knees, which I do because I have a poetic license as good as any Harry Potter “Creativido!” wand spell).

Consider this: The wonderful simile “One window is yellow as butter” no doubt started as a lit window. Then, in subsequent drafts, the poet asked herself what that soft yellow color looked like as it softly punched its shape into the night. Butter, of course.

Is this a lesson? Probably not. Unless there’s something to be learned in the obvious: Writer’s block doesn’t stand a chance against the moments we live every day.