Exercise: Transforming the Ordinary Using Imagery

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words. – Paul Engle

Poetry is truth in it Sunday clothes. — Joseph Roux

Engle’s quote uses the metaphor of a person— blood, nerves, bones.  But what of some of the poetic techniques that really separate fine poetry and put beautiful clothes on that body and make it ready to go to Sunday brunch or church as it Roux’s quote?

One way poetry is wrought from ordinary words is through the use of imagery.  Imagery, simply put, is the deployment of words so that the reader truly grasps a mental picture of what’s being written about.  Good imagery can set a mood, provoke an intense emotional response, or guide a reader to a place of empathy with the poet.  It’s one of the most powerful tools in the poet’s belt, and this exercise will help writers to take an ordinary scene and turn it into a provocative bit of imagery for a poem.

Start by taking a photo, finding one on the internet, or just making a mental snapshot of whatever’s around you.  People watching in a café is good for this, or you can go to a park and observe some nature, or just look at your cluttered breakfast table.  It matters not what— poetry is everywhere, like stones to be carved.  

I’m going to use as my example this photo:

lunchlady

Now, I’m going to pick something in the photo that seems completely insignificant and might even be overlooked by the reader.  It could be the boy’s backpack, or the “breakfast” propaganda sign, but for my purposes, I’m going to choose the server’s rubber glove.

 Then, set out to describe that insignificant thing in detail:

The white latex glove
Contrasts against her caramel skin
Clings to her fingers
Numbs her touch…

Now put the description in a setting:

The hand it cradles
Hangs from a tired arm
Her daily work has just begun…

 Add a little movement:

She absently reaches for a slotted spoon
Her other hand wrangling a plastic tray
As she puffs out a heavy breath… 

Set the emotional scene:

 A look of fatigue 
Betrays her careworn face
Eying the endless line
Of hungry children’s faces… 

Then, twist:

But as Miguel’s gap-toothed smile
Looks back at her from the serving line… 

Develop:

She knows she’s where she needs to be
Doing the Lord’s work
In her own little way… 

Refine:

Her lip can’t resist turning up at the edges
And gives him a little extra
Because she knows
All too well
What it means to him… 

Or twist again:

And though he never says a word
A momentary spark
In the black depths of his hungry eyes
Says, “Thanks, Mama” 

And now, we have an image-rich snapshot that provokes an emotional response, tells a story and leaves the reader fully able to see everything we have in the photo— without the photo.


LUNCH LADY 

The white latex glove
Contrasts against her caramel skin
Clings to her fingers
Numbs her touch
The hand it cradles
Hangs from a tired arm
Her daily work has just begun

She absently reaches for a slotted spoon
Her other hand wrangling a plastic tray
As she puffs out a heavy breath
A look of fatigue
Betrays her careworn face
Eying the endless line
Of hungry children’s faces
But as Miguel’s gap-toothed smile
Looks back at her from the serving line
She knows she’s where she needs to be
Doing the Lord’s work
In her own little way

Her lip can’t resist turning up at the edges
And gives him a little extra
Because she knows
All too well
What it means to him
And though he never says a word
A momentary spark
In the black depths of his hungry eyes
Says, “Thanks, Mama”

(© 2014 Thomas Horton)


Try it yourself!  I’d love to read what you come up with.  These elementary exercises can spur simple, brief comedic poems, or deep works that have social relevance, or emotional lyrical poetry that brings a reader to tears.  The tone is up to you.  Take the reader where you want him to go— and use imagery as your guidepost.