Imagery is often defined as something which creates a ‘picture in your head’. However, I have never found this useful because it seems to me that poems very rarely actually create anything like ‘pictures’ in my head that I can actually see.
As such, a better way to think about imagery is that it is just a form of comparison that helps try to explain one thing by comparing it to another. Now … you may ask why anyone would bother with this. Surely it would be simpler to just straight-forwardly describe something using adjectives rather than go to all the trouble of making comparisons. This seems sensible at first but have you ever really tried describing something accurately to someone else using just words? It’s actually a lot harder than you’d think, especially if you are trying to describe something new to that person or make them see the world in a new way, which is what poets and writers are often trying to do.
Making comparisons, then, is a good way of allowing us to use the knowledge that we already have to understand the new things that someone is trying to tell us. Take giving directions for example – it’s a lot easier to understand directions to an area that you’re already partly familiar with than directions to somewhere that you’ve never been.
There are three main types of comparison that writers often use. The simplest is simile:
A simile is a statement that uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to make a comparison.
For example when I say ‘the sun was as red as blood this evening,’ I have borrowed your already existing knowledge of the sharp and bright colour of blood to give you an idea of how vibrant and stunning the sunset was.
A metaphor is a direct comparison between two things where you pretend that one thing actually is another.
To turn the above example into a metaphor I would have to tell you about ‘the blood-soaked sun which set this evening’. Obviously the sun was not really bleeding so what I am saying cannot literally be true but it again conjures up the idea of a bright and shocking colour. You might notice as well that the metaphor is a little more powerful than the simile and has a more threatening feel perhaps because, without the words like or as, it is not so obviously a comparison.
Metaphors often work effectively as one-offs but sometimes writers try to push the metaphor as far as it will go and use different versions of it again and again throughout their text. In this case the metaphor has become an extended metaphor.
Personification is when a writer gives human qualities to an animal / object / idea / any other inanimate object.
Often personification is achieved by using adjectives or verbs that we usually associate with people, particularly verbs that give objects desires, intentions, plans or emotions. We personify things all the time in our daily lives e.g. we might describe our mobile phone as ‘hiding’ in the bottom of our bag when we can’t find it or you might say that the traffic ‘hates’ you because it always decides to be busy whenever you go out. Time and luck are also often personified. Time can be described as running away from us or chasing us and luck can be on our side or against us.