Imagery is one of the harder to pinpoint concepts in poetry. What exactly is the difference between describing something in poetry and creating imagery? This concept is not always easy to explain. So I looked at what some experts in the fields of communication and language said about imagery.
Marshall McLuhan, a modern philosopher well known for his communication and media theories, was particularly in the application of these theories. He wrote extensively on how marketing and advertisement appeals to people. He stepped into the realm of politics to comment:
Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.
Noam Chomsky, a linguist and cognitive scientist, who is known for his political involvement looked at McLuhan’s area of expertise, how the public perceives advertisements. According to Chomsky:
Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information. You expect to see delusion and imagery.
There is a similar theme running through both of these quotes, the idea that imagery provides more than actually exists in the object or person being described. The literary device of imagery can be defined as using words to create a mental picture. However, the mental picture is not simply what exists, but what exists at a more intense level. A simple cookie dipped in tea takes on a taste, texture and color that make it magically memorable, or an ordinary machine become monstrously frightening. In a way imagery is description on steroids.
Some of the techniques that move imagery to this level comparisons known as similes and metaphors. Similes typically deal with more superficial appearances (the sky is gray like slate), while metaphors deal with deeper structural similarities (the sky is an ocean of air) and can be extended into complex extended metaphors. However in each case the writer is adding nuances to the description that are beyond simply what is observed. Imagery adds connotations which builds another level of perception and results something being more appealing or distasteful.
In the end what reader of a poem desires is not simply to feel like they are present with the author but able to see the intangibles, the feelings, desires and very beliefs that drive the words on the written page. Remember the imagery in commercials: the man standing stalwart in front of flapping flag sells stability not the candidate, and the car rushing down the open road sells freedom, rather than a brand of automobile. People do not want poetry to show them reality, but something beyond it.