Belonging to the Saratoga Foothill Club has given me opportunities (maybe forced me) to delve into Frances MayesThe Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, to read up on images, and to offer an hour-and-a-half class through the Foothill Club’s Public Lecture Series titled Introduction to Poetry. Two weeks later I worked with a memoir class to present the two types of images Mayes suggests. I also joined the memoir class a week later to hear poems they chose to read, theirs or others. And enjoyed a potluck lunch without having to contribute. Delicious.

Another opportunity arose when Erica Goss and Mari L’Esperance taught a one-day class on images at the Markham House in History Park. What a relief to discover that literal images exist and are as acceptable as figurative. A more-than-useful day. My figurative images are few.

One of my students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino was talking with me about poetry. What he said was: “It’s pretty easy to write a good poem. It’s almost impossible to write a great one.” I’ve never forgotten those words. An Introduction to Poetry must begin with Billy Collins and his poem of the same name. Not a great poem, but a good one that tells a true tale in his usual clever style. Billy Collins is a favorite of mine for his use of humor.

It’s been said that a poem needs POWER AND PUNCH. If that’s the type of poem you plan to write, you’ll need images. And where do they come from? SIGHT, HEARING, TOUCH, SMELL AND TASTE—the five senses. A figurative image likens an object or experience to something else, often something surprising. The poet intends to do one or all of these:

• Go beyond the literal meaning to the senses.
• Give pleasure or surprise to the imagination.
• Impart vigor by the inclusion of a sensory detail.
• Intensify the deeper intention in the writing by adding a figurative image as a new dimension.

Here’s part of a poem, “Pleasures of the Exotic,” from my book, The Fringes of Hollywood. Note the figurative images.

fortress all its own
spiked at each leaf’s tip
refusing to reveal its secrets
unless uncovered one by one
like Salome’s veils

its greenness snug in the palm
press it, feel it give, cut through
firmly to open its halves.
Some skin peels away
like an opening curtain;
some must go under the knife.

shaped like a Rubens woman
its color the warmth of the setting sun:
inside, firm flesh, smooth, slippery
its womb black pearls
full of promise

And what are literal images? : A literal image aims to replicate in words the object or experience. The writer tries to reproduce the subject realistically without comparing it to anything else. Literal images take the flatness from your writing. No more “there are” beginnings. Many fewer is, are, was and were words. Use lively verbs. Be spare with adjectives and make them count. Even more spare with adverbs. And choose a noun that goes deep into description.

Another poem from The Fringes of Hollywood, this one without figurative images. Does it work?


I fixed a peach for you, he says, coming in
to wake me. I know that at the table bowl and plate
await me, sit royally on the blue mat

knife and spoon in place. The rich aroma of coffee
follows him down the hall. I push the covers back, thrust
my feet into padded slippers, paddle

to the kitchen. We sit behind our papers in unspoken truce, broken
only by the click of the microwave door. While his coffee
heats again, he kisses me,

microwave kisses and the toot of his horn at the foot
of the driveway. Sometimes I peer through shutter slats
to watch him drive away, linger

on the front porch to wave goodbye, happy
to have ended up after all these years
breakfasting with Jack.

And so many other ways to make a poem sing—alliteration, internal rhyme, repetition to name a few. You already know most of this, but I found that a quick review of the definitions of both literal and figurative images changed my writing.