WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF POETRY?

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INTRODUCTION

As we have established in previous articles, poetry is one of the major genres of literature and in order for us have a proper understanding of its nature, it is necessary for us to possess an adequate knowledge of the elements or salient features that differentiate/distinguish it from the other two literary genres – the novel/prose fiction and drama. These elements which constitute the tools by which poets convey the thoughts and experiences they wish to communicate include: imagery; rhythm; sound; diction. They are the very essence of poetic study or criticism and a full comprehension of their meaning and functions in the realisation of the total experience of any poem is of paramount importance.

Imagery

In simple terms, imagery is a collective term used to denote the images in a poem or all the objects and qualities of sense perception in a poem. In other words, it is a language that represents sense experience as graphically as possible. Thus it is the sensory content of a poem or a literary work in general that is meant to evoke a picture or an idea in the mind of a reader or the audience, in the case of poetry. You must have had this experience on occasions when you read a poem and images or pictures of the ideas and objects described or mentioned in the lines appeared in your mind’s eye or are flashed on the mirror of your mind; you seemed to have seen these pictures right before you on the page or in the spaces in front of you.

Due to this power of imagery in poetry, poets utilise it to achieve the following important effects in their works:

  • Arouse specific emotions in the reader or audience of their poems
  • Create beauty which is an important quality of poetry
  • Communicate thoughts
  • Achieve concretion of life experiences and ideas that are otherwise abstract

Accordingly, it is through imagery that the sense impressions and experiences evoked in a poem acquire necessary vividness and clarity.

The following are the main types of imagery that you would always find used either individually or in combination by poets in their works:

  • Auditory

This is the type of imagery, words or cluster of words that evoke the sense of hearing or a specific sound. Quite often, the auditory image manifests through the figure of sound known as onomatopoeia, that is a combination of words whose sound seems to resemble or echo the sound it denotes: “hum”, “murmur”, “bang”, “crack”, “hiss”, “screech” “hoot”. Examples of the use of auditory imagery are the following excerpts from JP Clark’s “Night Rain” and Niyi Osundare’s “Raindrum”:

  1. It is drumming hard here

         And I suppose everywhere

        Droning with insistent ardour upon

Our roof thatch and shed (Clark)

  1. The roof sizzle at the waking touch,

Talkative like kettledrums

Tightened by the iron fingers of drought

(Osundare, “Raindrum”)

  1. Then the priest commanding

Intones the charge, and the latest

Instruments of slaughter stutter out

A message mortal…

(Clark, “Benin Sacrifice”)

A sensitive reading of the first two excerpts above by you would definitely make you ‘hear’ the drumming, droning, sizzling and talkative drops of the rain that sound like kettledrums on the thatch roof of the personae’s abodes as well as on the dessicated earth “licked clean by the fiery tongue of drought”. In the third excerpt, the sound of the machine guns (‘instruments of slaughter’) is mimicked or conveyed through the onomatopoeic word “stutter”. The sound of the drum beat is common to both poets’ realisation of the experience conveyed in their poems. You will agree that the sense of hearing they express is what you are conversant with and would easily appreciate.

Olfactory

Images of this type evoke our sense of smell whether sweet, pungent, fragrant,

etc. An example of this is:

  1. The air was heavy with odours

Of diarrhoea of unwashed children

  1. ‘ARE YOU

LIGHT

OR VERY DARK?’ Button B. Button A. Stench

Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.

The lines “odours of diarrhoea of unwashed children” and “stench of rancid breath” virtually transport the reader, through his or her imagination, to the settings of the poems and make one a co-perceiver of the odours described by the poets.

  • Tactile

This refers to the images that appeal to one’s sense of touch. A good example of this is the memorable line from James Shirley’s poem “The Glories of our Blood and State”:

Death lays his icy hand on kings (Reeves 104).

This line makes someone feel by imagination the cold hand of death as it seizes its victim. You must have often read in obituary announcements the mention or reference to the “cold hands of death” that have snatched away a loved one; this expression accentuates the sense of touch by the use of “icy” to underscore the coldness of death.

A similar poetic process takes place in these lines from Okinba Launko’s poem titled “Separation”, where the coldness and aloneness of separation of people, probably former lovers, are given a concrete approximation in the comparison/simile in the two last lines of the following quotation:

So welcome again,

The old loneliness. I hear you spring awake and hiss,

Cold as the touch of steel

In a harmattan night; (p. )

The combination of “cold” and “harmattan nights” in the above lines, no doubt, sends a familiar feeling through your mind and body; the harmattan season is associated with the cold draught of the wind that blows from the Sahara Desert and most of us have felt it.

  • Gustatory

The images that evoke our sense of taste go by this name.

  1. I like to see it lap the miles

         And lick the valleys up,

And stop to feed itself at tanks

And then prodigious step

(Emily Dickinson )

  1. My husband’s tongue

is bitter like the roots of the

Lyono lily

…….. …….. ………

It is ferocious

like the poison of a barren

Woman

And corrosive like the juice of

the gourd

( p’Bitek Song of Lawino )

  • Visual

Quite often our sense of sight or vision is evoked by merely reading lines of poetry where a poet has effectively utilised words or language that effectively create appropriate pictures in the reader’s mind. Such resultant images are referred to as visual images or imagery; for example:

…. …. children

With washed-out ribs and dried-up

Bottoms struggling in laboured

Steps behind blown empty bellies

(Achebe Beware Soul Brother )

On reading these lines, one cannot help but visualise in his mind a picture of emaciated children – the sad relics of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war of the nineteen sixties; the children are mere ghosts of their former selves: their erstwhile robust bodies have now turned skeletal and their bottoms are shrivelled and all these physical changes accentuate the “blown empty bellies”, symptomatic of kwashiorkor.

  • Kinaesthetic

Kinaesthetic imagery refers to those images that call forth in the mind of the reader the perception of movement. In other words, these are images that appeal to the reader’s sense of movement or motion. Examples of this type of imagery are:

  1. And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran.

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:

Coleridge “Kubla Khan” (Reeves 177)

  1. From the west

Clouds come hurrying with the wind

Turning

Sharply

Here and there

Like a plague of locust

Whirling

Tossing up things on its tail

Like a madman chasing nothing

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