When I think about what makes a poem stand out, I think of fantastic imagery. Poems that employ rich descriptions and use details that allow me to fall into the poem and experience it on as many levels as possible — hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling — are poems that I tend to remember long after I first read them. The details are what re-emerge later in my mind. Carefully crafted imagery lends a particular power to a poem, helping to shape the poem’s tone and guide the reader into its unique world. Imagery sets the mood. It’s the candles and jazz of poetry writing.
While I want to focus mostly on imagery in this writing, I do want to bring up the issue of “poetic fibbing,” which, for me, is linked to writing great detail. Sure, we all embellish at least a little, but I think it’s critical for poets to be able to detach from the obligation of sticking to the truth when writing poems. Poetry is no place for following rules — after all, there is a whole world of rules and ordinary life outside the poem, and poetry should be an escape from the quotidian. I’m not talking about the kind of lie a thief would tell after stealing his granny’s last fifty bucks to blow on booze. I mean the kind of imaginative fabrication that we engage in when we are in the raw process of developing ideas and scenes which we want to bring into our poems. Starting with the familiar or with a grain of truth is helpful — maybe you did go to summer camp one year in middle school — but sometimes creating great details means departing from the whole truth and escaping into fantasy. So instead of a summer camp poem, now you have a poem about two friends who ran away from summer camp in the mountains and were found murdered a month later. A reader is not likely to care about whether this actually happened. They’re more interested in the story, and the imagery is what makes the story memorable. Get used to lying in your poems.
I think of sensory detail as the workhorse of a poem. Load it up with descriptions, with color and sound and smells, but be warned: even a workhorse can work too hard. There is such a thing as too much detail, and that’s a death sentence for a poem. So, I think it’s useful to remember what imagery does in the poem. It immerses a reader, but just so much. I still want someone reading my poetry to be able to imagine, to be surprised, to be transported to the world I created with words. That can’t happen if I send a reader trudging down a long hallway that’s dark but not too dark, with plush navy-blue carpet, and narrow creaky doors on either side, and dusty baseboards, and a little table leaning against the wall, and on and on and on — eventually a reader is like, holy crap, get me out of here! And they stop reading. Recognize the power of detail, but recognize its limitations, too, and give the reader credit for their ability to imagine. A great example of using just enough detail to allow readers to imagine and experience the poem, without going overboard, is Rumi’s “Like This.” Here is an excerpt from that poem:
“If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.
If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Like this. Like this.”
Those two words, “like this,” follow specific instructions in the preceding lines which the reader naturally imagines acting out: “lean your head toward him or her./ Keep your face there close,” “slowly loosen knot by knot the strings/of your robe,” and “don’t try to explain the miracle./Kiss me on the lips.” The reader is becoming fully engaged in the intimacy of the poem without Rumi having to describe in minute detail what the face held so close to another face feels like, or what the robe reveals once the knots in the strings are loosened, or what the kiss feels like. The reader has already imagined those things. Rumi uses a sparing amount of sensory detail in the poem but manages to light the imagination with his clever use of “Like this,” which together with the details, serves to pull the reader farther in to the experience. In other words, he recognized the power of detail but also knew how to use it well.
Another poem with great use of detail that transports a reader straight into the scene is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm.” Here are the last two stanzas of the poem:
“But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes! — it writhes! — with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
Out — out are the lights — out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.”
Again, there isn’t so much detail that it becomes overwhelming to read, but there is enough that it’s easy to imagine this “blood-red thing,” and the writhing and the feasting with its “vermin fangs” on the “human gore.” He could have been far more descriptive, but in this poem, it wasn’t necessary, and the space he left instead is just enough for a reader to be able to imagine in their own way what a scene it must have been.
Poe also does a fantastic job of creating vivid imagery in “The Haunted Palace.” Here is the last stanza from that poem:
“And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh — but smile no more.”
It’s easy to imagine this creepy palace, with its windows glowing red, and the ghostly dancing inside, with melancholy music playing, and then, this incredible sense of madness at the very end as the throng is rushing out laughing. Poe uses brief but effective sensory details, and we as readers are whisked away to this palace in the valley almost instantly. It wasn’t just a river, it was a “ghastly rapid river,” and a “pale door,” and a “hideous throng.” Those kinds of descriptions make the difference between a ho-hum poem and a stellar one. Why settle for “giant” snowflakes when you could have snowflakes the size of sugar cookies? Often, adding an element of surprise to the detail makes the imagery that much more interesting and memorable.
A poem is a circus show. Everywhere, there are posters up advertising all the acts, and striped tents lit with round yellow bulbs bobbing in the cool night air stretch across the fairgrounds. The reader has already bought a ticket, and here they are in your audience, waiting to be enthralled. They’ve left their ordinary lives outside, in a tiny town with a broken blinking bank sign, and nothing else going on tonight, and they want an escape. Give them the show of their lives. Fill your poetry with color, surprise, and music. Make every detail count. Be the sword-swallower, the human cannonball, the girl getting sliced in half. Give them sparkling fireworks, and hot popcorn, and music and mystery.
Rumi. “Like This.” The Essential Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, www.rumi.org.uk/love_poems/#IfAnyoneAsksYou. Accessed 21 Apr. 2021.
Edgar Allen Poe. “The Conqueror Worm.” The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allen Poe, 1946,
www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48633/the-conqueror-worm. Accessed 21 Apr. 2021.
Edgar Allen Poe. “The Haunted Palace.” The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allen Poe, 1946,
www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52370/the-haunted-palace. Accessed 21 Apr. 2021.