4.6 Imagery, Symbolism & Juxtaposition in Poetry
Rita Dove, who served as the Poet Laureate of the United States, once said, ‘Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.’ That idea of poetry as distilled language is a beautiful and apt description. Poetry takes an idea and boils it down to its basic ingredients and represents those ideas and emotions in poetic sounds and images. This lesson will focus on the images, with some emphasis on what you might need to know for the AP Literature test.
Types of Images
Poetic images come in two varieties – figurative and literal. Literal images are the actual things being shown in a poem, while figurative images carry additional meaning. Let’s look more closely at these terms by examining Randall Jarrell’s World War Two poem, ‘Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.’
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The gruesome last line of the poem is a literal image. The poem describes a ball turret gunner, the man operating the bubble-like gun on the side of a warplane. These gunners had an extremely dangerous job, as reflected in the shocking final line.
Because this image is meant to be taken at face value, it’s a literal image. This poem also has a figurative image in the second line. That part depicts a creature hunched and freezing inside the belly of a larger beast. It’s figurative because the larger beast is meant to represent a plane, and the creature with the wet fur is the freezing soldier, the ball turret gunner. What makes figurative images so powerful is the fact that they carry a wealth of ideas and emotions with them.
The second line makes the plane seem like the soldier’s mother; it gives the soldier a vulnerability and it draws the reader’s sympathy by drawing comparisons between the soldier and an unborn child. A single line of poetry, one image, carries all those layers of meaning. How’s that for distilled language?
While carefully chosen literal images can convey ideas and emotions, it’s the figurative images that bring in the depth and complexity, so it’s those images that you should attend to on the AP Literature test. Symbolism in literature takes the form of images that represent ideas.
Let’s look at that old favorite, Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ In the poem, the speaker is walking through the woods and comes to a fork in the road. This fork is more than the literal branching of the road; it becomes a symbol of the bigger ideas in the poem. Many people take it as representing the paths we can take in life and that by choosing the ‘one less traveled by’ they’re being individuals and refusing to follow the crowd.
Like many of the devices in poems on the AP Literature test, symbols can often carry more than one meaning. In this case, the fork in the road represents the choices we make in life, but the poem isn’t necessarily about being different. The two paths, meant to represent paths life can take, were ‘just as fair’ and ‘about the same.’
Based on the symbolism, the poem could be read as one about regret for not choosing the other path which had ‘the better claim.’ Like the person in the poem, you’ve made your choice. You’ve chosen to learn about imagery, and the next stop on the path is juxtaposition.
Sometimes poets will give you not just one but two images in juxtaposition. Juxtaposed images are contrasting images placed side-by-side. Poets create juxtaposition to tease out additional meaning from the images and to draw in the reader’s attention. Think about that Randall Jarrell poem we read earlier. The poem contains a figurative image of pregnancy, of the soldier in the plane’s symbolic womb. Contrast those images with the one of death at the end of the poem.
As an AP Literature student, you’ve probably asked yourself the key question, ‘What is the effect of this on the reader?’ Ask yourself that question now. What effect do the contrasting images of life and death have on this poem? It makes the soldier more of an object of sympathy and his death harsher and more repulsive. This simple juxtaposition turns the short poem into a firm anti-war statement.
If poetry is distilled language, then images carry much more of that condensed meaning. Images can be literal and represent the actual things being described, or they can be figurative and carry additional meaning. Symbolic images are those that represent something beyond the image itself. The road in Frost’s poem is more than a road; it’s a symbol of the path of life. Juxtaposed images contrast with each other for effect. Upon discovering symbols or juxtaposition, ask yourself, ‘What is the effect of this image on the reader?’ Poems chosen for the AP Literature exam often have layers of meaning, so expect the effect of any image to be complex. That’s the depth of meaning brought by distilled language.
After you are done, you should be able to:
- Define the two types of poetic images
- Identify symbolic imagery and juxtaposed images in a poem
- Recall what question you should ask yourself when analyzing poetry for the AP Literature Exam