Beyond Show Don’t Tell: The Poetic Image in Fiction

A few years ago, I came across a memorable TEDx lecture by Dr. Joe Dispenza titled “Our Three Brains: From Thinking to Doing to Being.” The lecture explained the brain processes that occur when a person makes that all-important transition from acquiring knowledge intellectually to transferring that knowledge to experience. Dr. Dispenza demonstrates that for any knowledge to have any real impact on learning, the brain must be able to associate knowledge with emotion. Embedding knowledge into memory is a chemical process that transitions the brain’s chemical arrangement of information from the neocortex, which is the part of the human brain responsible for all cognitive functions, to the limbic brain, the part of the human brain that we often associate with the “fight or flight” instinct.


It’s all fine and well to read a book about how to get along with difficult people, says Dr. Dispenza, but if next time we see that hated mother in law we keep falling into the same loop of negative emotions, all we learned in that book will be forgotten, and we’ll default to the same old behavior, regardless how hard we memorized the book. Instead, we have to make an effort to associate a positive emotion with what we learned, so that we can override the brain’s tendency to throw us into a fixed negative loop.


The takeaway from that video is that memory – and transformative, experiential learning — is closely associated with emotion. Without that chemical cocktail released from the limbic brain, the sophisticated neo-cortex can labor over theories and facts all it wants, but nothing significant will ever be retained.


It occurs to me that much in the craft of fiction also relies on the successful release of those chemicals we call emotions, and that is why we often talk about “show, don’t tell,” and any other craft technique intended to remind us that what writers should aspire to is for readers to experience the writing viscerally, bypassing the intellect. That is why the poetic image, an elusive concept often misunderstood reductively as sensory description or metaphoric language, is one of the most effective methods for stimulating emotional responses.


We can thank Modernist writers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s for many of the innovations that ushered in contemporary prose styles, and the image is no exception. The period before the Great War especially was a time when writers, musicians, painters, and philosophers gathered together in literary salons across the major cities of the world, Paris, London, New York, Brussels, Budapest, to discuss music, art and literature and to cross-pollinate ideas. It was normal then for musicians to discuss painting, or artists to discuss literature, and for writers to critique and influence music and art both: Stravinksy, Picasso, Picabia, Goudier-Brzeska, and Man Ray all frequented the same cafés and gatherings as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, T.S. Elliot and Hemingway, just to name a few. The talk and passion of these salons created fresh new movements of expression that changed the way they (and we) perceived art in the world.


Among these important movements arose the idea of the poetic image, a method for describing situations, objects and settings so as to trigger in the reader an immediate emotional experience and to stimulate intellectual connections that would transcend the simple words on the page. In the prologue of the anthology titled Des Imagists, the poet Ezra Pound succinctly described the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” (Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” n.d.)


Although often attributed to Ezra Pound, Imagism actually had multiple simultaneous roots. The English poet and philosopher T.E. Hulme was one of the first to consider image as central to modernist style. He was heavily influenced by innovative theories of the mind proposed by the psychologists of the time. He was also interested in the French Symbolists, Beaunier in particular, who discussed a poetic style involving “an image that could be employed for the representation of an idea.” (Martin 1970) Hulme eventually developed a poetic style that would transcend the stiff, flowery prose of the Victorian era, which appealed to the intellect at the expense of emotion. Instead Hulme galvanized his contemporaries to adopt a language that felt visceral and immediate. He wanted to invite the reader to interact with the writing, to experience it, rather then ruminate it intellectually. He lectured often on the ideas he developed, and ultimately founded a literary circle called The Poet’s Club, an exclusive salon that drew literary giants from across the globe.


Among those who attended the Poet’s Club was the American Ezra Pound, who through his own readings of French psychologists, also developed and elaborated upon the image as a poetic style, emphasizing a need for language that was concrete, accurate, and pithy. Ezra Pound was the first to coin the term Imagism, and the first to hammer out several craft treaties that defined the image and the movement. Pound promoted Imagism tirelessly through various publications and through talks in literary circles. Though Pound would eventually move past Imagism, among those who benefited from Pound’s influence were James Joyce and Earnest Hemingway. Ever since, the image has been a cornerstone craft technique for fiction writers, not just for flash fiction writers who rely on the image to deliver the depths that brevity challenges, but also for writers of longer contemporary fiction, both literary and commercial.


While the image has inspired an approach to writing that we now commonly refer to as “show don’t tell” image as Pound and Hulme intended it is far more complex and nuanced. Hulme theorized that people have different levels of awareness, the first and most immediate type arising from our sensory experiences and intuitions. Hulme thought that the poetic image, a description of a place or situation that focused specifically on the senses, without adorned language or abstractions, would communicate with a reader on that instinctual, sensory level, therefore giving that reader a much more immediate experience of meaning than would an intellectual elaboration.


As Imagism spread so did its definition evolve. What survives to this day, however, is the insistence that language be concrete, pithy, direct, and evocative. This last attribute is one of the most useful and most difficult to accomplish, as a good image starts as a singular visual or sensory moment, but may stimulate an explosion of multiple emotional and intellectual associations.


A classic example is in Ezra Pound’s most famous poem of the Imagist period.


In A Station of the Metro


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.


Pound conceived of this poem while he was in Paris in the early 1910’s. He was struck by the beauty and fragility of the faces of the people who were crowded in the dark tunnels of the metro, inside the metro car. From the moment he happened upon that crowded metro he knew he wanted to write a poem about it, but it took him years before he could finally chisel it down to the two layered lines of meaning we have today.


In spite of the poem’s brevity, the images, and the choice of words, have the ability to stimulate a number of complex emotions and associations. The poem is brief, but its brevity echoes the flash-like appearance of a train car in a metro, its screeching stop, the streaming passengers, the quick closing doors and its subsequent disappearance in the dark. From the very first noun, “apparition,” which we often associate with ghosts and other numinous phenomena understood as fleeting and sudden, Pound underscores time and timelessness, movement and stillness.


The faces are compared to petals on a tree limb, wet and black from the rain and the storm. The effect further creates associations between the fragility of flowers and the transient beauty of youth. Similarly, the storms are associated with the business of modern life, and the quick appearance and disappearance of a train with the cycles of nature, particularly with death and withering or aging.


The poem thus foregoes elaborate intellectual explanations or reliance on elevated language. It does not invite us to think; it invites us to feel. As we associate flower petals strewn in a storm with faces of people in a train station, we come to experience the same sensations that Pound experienced when he was surprised by the beauty of the travelers in a place so dark and transitional — and by the lasting impression it made on his mind.


The image, then, is a carefully pared down description of concrete objects that stimulate the senses and that, in their appearance and associations, trigger in the reader a complicated visceral reaction. Images do not have to be visual: some images can be made up of sounds or smells or a combination of sensory details. The image may also communicate in the rhythm of the words, in the sentence structure itself, as in Pound’s poem, through its brevity, and through the long rhythms ending abruptly in end stop. Images do require an efficient use of language: every word has to not only mean precisely what the writer intended; it also should evoke multiple emotional or intellectual associations. In some cases, images are most immediate in the things they do not describe, in the omissions.


One way to make use of images in contemporary fiction is to employ word choices that enhance the description of a character or situation, words that allude to a greater meaning. Consider this passage from “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick, that describes the unlikely survival of a baby born in a concentration camp during the Holocaust (the bold emphasis is mine):


Such a good child, she gave up screaming, and sucked now only for the taste of the drying nipple itself. The neat grip of the tiny gums. One mite of a tooth tip sticking up in the bottom gum, how shining, an elfin tombstone of white marble gleaming there. Without complaining, Magda relinquished Rosa’s teats, first the left, then the right; both were cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct-crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead. (Ozick “The Shawl” 1980).


Ozick could have described baby Magda in any number of ways, but she choses to focus on a tooth, an infant’s first sign of growth, and also a bodily change that should eventually enable the baby to eat solid food. In Magda’s case, however, the tooth is a particularly painful reference, as in Magda’s world there is no food, nor any possibility of substantial nourishment. Even Rosa’s teat is dry. The single tooth is therefore not accidentally the focus, and when it is described as “an elfin tombstone of white marble” the image presages Magda’s likely death, preparing the reader for the inevitable.

The comparison of the baby tooth to a tombstone is particularly significant, since it is in Rosa’s point of view. Rosa is incapable of seeing any other future for Magda but death, even if the baby is nothing if not an affirmation of life itself, proof that life will endure regardless the hardships of the environment. Further qualifying the tombstone as elfin underscores Rosa’s feeling that the infant is peculiar and otherworldly, elfin-like because there is something magical about the baby having survived thus far in a place where death reigns.

In an earlier passage, Ozick emphasizes another character’s hunger with another pithy but effective image:

Stella was ravenous. Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones.

The mention of tumors and bones carries the experience of the reader further than a simple mention of a gaunt body. The words are chosen to stimulate an association to fragility (sticks, elbows), but also of death (tumors, bones).


Not all images need necessarily work as figurative language. An example of a literal, yet evocative image is illustrated in this excerpt from “This is What We Do” by Scott O’Connor. (O’Connor, This is What We Do 2016) The narrator, a runaway kid, is roped into a scam for selling fake magazine subscriptions with other street kids. The narrator, who hides his identity behind a generic “we” describes his ordeal in quick vivid paragraphs with sparing but image-specific details. We understand, for instance, what the scam’s organizers will do to a kid who can’t keep up with the scheme:


We leave kids who won’t sell, can’t sell. Motel rooms, truck stops, side of the road. The worst is the bus station with empty pockets, no ticket. Standing out under the overhang in the heat and exhaust, watching each bus leave without you.

O’Connor makes use of such simple everyday language that it is easy to miss the subtlety of it. The narrator warns us that there is a “worst” punishment for kids who fail to live up to their exploiter’s expectations, but rather than explaining the what or the why of this compared to other punishments, we are invited to fill in the blanks with a few brushstrokes, a few precise words: empty pockets, no ticket, heat, exhaust, a bus (presumably full of people) leaving the kid behind.


Any reader is capable of making the necessary associations: we will remember that the kid does cons probably because he’s already been abandoned once by his parents or guardians, if not literally, then at least emotionally. We can even picture the kid standing under a flimsy canopy, perhaps in a desolate place, staring at the back of the bus as it moves away; we may picture the driver looking at the kid through his rearview mirror. Nor do we need to be reminded how dangerous it is for any child to be without supervision. The danger, the desolation, the impossibility of a positive outcome, are all telegraphed in that simple but specific image.


O’Connor also uses images to create a cumulative emotional effect. We see the kids’ suppressed anger, their hellish existence exploding out of them, at first against the people they try to con who don’t fall for it:


We don’t take no for an answer…Using a dried out pen tip we carve, Next time answer the fucking doorbell bitch into the siding beside your door when no one is home…

Then we see the kids as they interact with each other in the hotel room that is their only “reward” for having worked the streets, and here O’Connor moves from sensory to metaphorical, back to sensory:


A motel room in Hemet—ten, twelve kids fighting. The room becomes a seething beast, a rat king; teeth and nails and fists and feet. Lamps broken, mirrors broken. Blood on the wall.

The author has progressed us from casual vandalism to outright destruction of property, an explosion of a contained rage that can only end with “blood on the wall.”

O’Connor also juxtaposes images that evoke opposite feelings for effect. Compare the hotel scene with the following one, where the narrator is pounding the pavement in a family-friendly suburb:


Families after dark, sitting down to dinner on the other side of lighted windows. Watching TV, all together on the couch. Father with a tie and a beer. Mother with a glass of wine. Kids snuggled in between.

Look what you have, where you are. Would you like to buy a subscription?

Another effect accomplished here is that the “picture perfect” image of a family sitting by the television lends the ensuing mention of a subscription a new slant. Following that image and the sentiment it triggers, the word “subscription” takes on a slightly different nuance. Is the kid hoping to “subscribe” into a real family situation? Is that what working with the scammers is doing for him, subscribing him to the closest thing to a family the kid will ever hope to know? The image has effectively worked to render multiple meanings for what follows.


Writers may also create images that frame or stage a particularly illustrative moment in a story. They often use them as openings and closings for the reverberations that a good image is known to create. An example is found in Angela Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride,” an adaptation of the Beauty and The Beast fairy tale. Unlike the Disneyesque ending of the beast turning into a man, the closing image in “The Tiger’s Bride” is one both sinister and sexually evocative:


He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. ‘He will lick the skin off me!’ And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.


In the fairy tale, a beast is turned into a human through love. In this adaptation, a human is turned into a beast through sex. The rough, sandpaper tongue, the layer of skin, the “nascent patina of shining hairs,” and the act itself of licking to remove skin and reveal fur beneath is suggestive beyond the literal meaning, communicating viscerally to the reader, beyond intellect, how the act of love is stripping the human away and releasing the beast. Similarly, the jeweled earrings that turn into water drops may suggest tears, or perhaps something else, something more sensual. Ending the story on this image, a frieze of a sexual act that involves beastly elements, has the power to suggest what will follow this moment as well as to leave the reader with a powerful emotional closure.


The poetic image is such an effective technique of language that it has been adopted in all genres of fiction writing, and continues to be central to the craft of both poetry and prose, especially today. It is the dominant technique for flash fiction, a form of fiction that relies on concentrated language and succinctness, but it also continues to be a staple of craft for literary realism and for many commercial genres.


Images are memorable. They stand out, sometimes visually but also through other senses. A good image will leave an imprint in our minds, so that we will carry that image with us long after we finish reading a story. It may be the beating heart beneath the floorboards of “A Tell Tale Heart” or the scrawny child’s knees in “The Shawl.” Images are memorable because they connect first to our emotions, to our non-verbal instincts, by-passing the logical brain, and in triggering the limbic system, causing an experience, and thus becoming part of our permanent memory.

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. “The Tiger’s Bride.” In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter, 61-82. Penguin Books, 1980.

Dispenza, Joe. “Our Three Brains: From Thinking to Doing to Being.” TEDx. Tacoma, WA, April 2012.

Martin, Wallace. “The Source of the Imagist Aesthetic.” PMLA (Modern Language Association) 85, no. 2 (March 1970): 196-204.

O’Connor, Scott. “This is What We Do.” Fiction Southeast. January 30, 2016. (accessed July 19, 2017).

Ozick, Cynthia. “The Shawl.” The New Yorker. May 19, 1980. (accessed July 19, 2017).

Pound, Ezra. “”A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”.” Poetry Foundation. (accessed July 19, 2017).

—. “In A Station of the Metro.” (accessed July 19, 2017).


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